JEF Sunday School Lesson 11

Lesson 11: Genesis 34 and 37-39

Genesis 34

What was the sin of Dinah’s brothers? Was it that they took vengeance? Reread the Abrahamic covenant to see what it promises, and think about that covenant as it relates to this event. Did they violate that covenant? How does this chapter portray Jacob? Beyond the rape, what does Shechem do, through his father, that is an affront to Jacob and his sons? (For an excellent discussion of this chapter, read Meir Sternberg, The Poetics of Biblical Narrative 445-475.)

Genesis 37

It is obvious that, like we who try to study and teach the large amounts of material assigned for each lesson, those who created these Sunday School lessons have struggled to deal with the amount of material to be covered. They have had to divide the story of Joseph in two, chapters 27-29 in this lesson and chapters 40-45 in lesson 12, and they have had to omit the denouement of Joseph’s story, chapters 46-47. The result forces us to focus on parts of the story and, perhaps, to overlook the story as a whole—which is likely to change our understanding of the parts. However, to understand the story of Joseph, I think that we need to read it as a whole. The story has these parts (Word Biblical Commentary 2:344):

            Joseph is sold into Egypt        37:2-36

            Tamar and Judah                    38

            Joseph and Potiphar                39:1-20

            Joseph in prison                      39:21-40:23

            Joseph in the palace                41

            Joseph’s family’s first visit      42

            The second visit                      43:1-45:28

            The third visit                         46-47

To understand the story as a whole, consider questions such as how the third visit and the story of Joseph’s sale as a slave are connected textually, and why the story of Joseph includes the stories of Tamar and Judah and of Joseph and Potiphar, as well as how those two stories are alike and dissimilar. Also ask how this story illustrates the fulfillment of God’s covenant with Abraham. Look at each specific part of the blessing, and see whether you can see how Joseph’s story exemplifies that part.

Verse 2: Similar to the story of Isaac (Genesis 25:19), this story begins “these are the generations of Jacob,” but it isn’t followed by the expected genealogy. (The word translated “generations” could also have been translated “results” or “proceedings.” It refers to an account of a person and his descendants and is the word used in Genesis 2:4.) Why do you suppose the two stories begin this way? Is that the beginning of this story, or is it the end of the list of Esau’s descendants in chapter 36? (Remember there were no chapter and verse divisions in the original text.) What difference does each way of reading the text make? Why do you think Jacob is referred to here as “Jacob” rather than as “Israel”?

We read the story that begins here and ends in chapter 47, with the reconciliation of Joseph and his brothers (or even in chapters 49-50, with the deaths of Jacob and Joseph), as “the story of Joseph.” If we take “these are the generations of Jacob” to be the beginning of this story rather than the end of the genealogy of Esau, what is the significance of that beginning? Who is Joseph’s mother? (Reread Genesis 30 and 33 for a better understanding of the fact that Joseph is Jacob’s favorite son.) Of what significance is it whose sons Joseph was with? “The lad was with the sons of Bilhah [. . .]” may mean “the boy was a servant to the sons of Bilhah [. . .]. If we understand the text that way, does it change anything about how we understand the story? How is Joseph’s age relevant? How does the last clause of the verse prepare us for what is to come? Does it give us some reason to believe that Joseph’s brothers won’t be happy with him, even before we hear the rest of the story? Are we supposed to feel sympathy for Joseph? For his brothers?

Verse 3: How does the beginning of this verse contrast with the end of the last? What do you make of the explanation for why Jacob loved Joseph most, especially in light of what you’ve read in chapters 30 and 33, and in light of the fact that Jacob has another son of his old age, Benjamin? What does the explanation indicate? The phrase “of many colors” is a guess at a translation of a difficult Hebrew phrase. Others have translated it “a coat with long sleeves.” the Koehler-Baumgartner Hebrew lexicon says that it is a garment worn next to the skin that covers the arms to the wrists and the legs to the ankles (A Handbook on Genesis 848). 2 Samuel 13:18 takes it to be something worn by a princess. Whatever the correct translation, it is clear that Jacob has made Joseph a special coat, perhaps even a ceremonial one, and almost certainly a sign of authority. What might such special clothing indicate? Might that at least partially explain Joseph’s brothers’ animosity toward him? Do you think Jacob’s own history might at least partially explain his love for one of his youngest sons? Isn’t there an irony in the comparison of Jacob’s history and this story?

Verse 4: What is going on in this family? Does this fully explain the brothers’ hatred? What about the end of verse 1? Does that also explain their hatred? Why do you think that Moses repeats three times that the brothers hated Joseph, here and in verses 5 and 8?

Verses 5-8: Why does Moses introduce the story by giving us a synopsis of it (verse 5)? Picture a seventeen-year-old boy saying this to his brothers, some probably in their forties. How is Moses portraying Joseph? Are we supposed to have some sympathy for the older brothers? Are we supposed to understand their anger? The answer to the brothers’ question will be “yes,” but what are we supposed to see at this point in the story?

Verses 9-10: Why has Moses placed these two dreams so closely together? What effect does he create by doing so? This pair of dreams is paralleled by the dreams of the butler and baker and the two dreams of Pharaoh. Is that significant? How does the story of this dream differ from that of the previous dream? What do we learn about Jacob from these verses? What do verses 5-10 tell us about Joseph? Do you think Joseph knew the reaction his stories might bring?

Verse 11: “Envied” translates something that is much stronger in Hebrew. The Hebrew means that they had a strong emotion that made them red in the face. However, Jacob’s reaction is different, he “observed” or “guarded” what Joseph had said. Compare the brothers’ reaction with Jacob’s. What do we see about Jacob here, given what we saw in verse 10? If Jacob couldn’t get what Joseph was saying out of his mind, why did he rebuke Joseph in the previous verse?

Verses 12-14: How is this connected to the immediately preceding stories? In verse 2 we saw Joseph tending sheep. Then we saw three short stories about Joseph’s relation to his family. Now we see him at home with his father while his brothers tend the sheep. So what? Why did Joseph, the shepherd, stay behind? Why might Jacob have sent Joseph rather than a servant to check on the sons? The phrase “be well with” translates the Hebrew word shalom, often translated “peace,” though “well-being” is also a very important meaning. How is shalom a key word in this story?

Verses 15-17: Why does the writer include this episode in the story? What’s the point? Why not move immediately from verses 12-14 to verse 18? Note that Shechem is a place destined for disaster. (The word may mean “retribution.”) In addition to the evil done by Joseph’s brothers there, Dinah was raped there (Genesis 34), and Israel was divided there between Jeroboam and Rehoboam (I Kings 12). What do you make of the fact that Joseph was wandering?

Verse 18: What does this verse tell us about Joseph’s brothers? How long did it take them to come to a decision?

Verses 19-20: “This dreamer” translates what literally means “this master of dreams.” What do the brothers intend by that phrase? What does it mean to the writer? Given what the brothers say in these verses, what motivates their hatred? Notice the way in which, at the end of verse 20, they prophesy unwittingly. What point is the writer making? Note that when describing what the brothers intend to do, the writer used a word that is correctly translated “slay” or “kill.” Here, however, the brothers use a word that might be well-translated as “murder.”

Verses 21-22: What do the brothers believe Reuben is proposing? Why might Reuben want to save Joseph? What is Reuben’s position in the family? How might that be relevant? For example, in Jacob’s absence, what would be his responsibility?

Verses 23-24: Have the brothers decided yet what they are going to do, kill him or leave him in the dry cistern to die? How could Reuben save Joseph from immediate death (verse 21) but agree to let him die of thirst in the pit?

Verses 25-27: What does the first clause of verse 25 say about the brothers? Is Judah also tryingto save Joseph? What reasons does he give against killing Joseph? How seriously would the brothers have understood each reason to be?

Verse 28: What happened here? Are the Midianites and the Ishmeelites two groups or two names for the same group? Note that 20 shekels (pieces of silver) is the standard price in the OldTestament for a young, male slave (Leviticus 27:5).

Verses 29-30: Where has Reuben been? Why didn’t we see him leave? What is Reuben asking when he cries, “And I, whither shall I go?” Why does he tear his clothing? What does torn clothing represent in the Old Testament

Verses 31-33: Why don’t the brothers respond to Reuben? Why do the brothers invent this relatively elaborate subterfuge? Why not say nothing at all? We know Joseph got lost on the way to see them (verse 15-17), why not just pretend they never saw Joseph? Is there any connection between this deceit by Joseph’s brothers and the deceit that Jacob played on Isaac?

Verses 34-35: Is Moses portraying Jacob’s mourning as excessive? Why or why not? Compare Genesis 50:10 and Deuteronomy 34:8.

Verse 36: A note for your amusement: the Hebrew that is translated “captain of the guard” means literally “chief of the butchers.” That title came to mean “captain of the guard” or “house steward.” It isn’t clear which of those it means or how it came to mean one or the other of them.

Chapter 38

Many find this story distasteful and so avoid it. But it is important not to read it merely through contemporary eyes. Tamar set about obtaining what was hers by legal right—see Genesis 38:26—and what her father-in-law had refused her. What do Onan’s actions show us about his relationship to the Abrahamic covenant? Tamar’s? Does that help explain why Tamar is one of only three women (besides Mary) mentioned in Jesus’ genealogy (Tamar, Ruth—married to Tamar’s descendant, Boaz—and Bathsheba: Matthew 1:3, 5, and 6)? Many contemporaries of each of these women, and Mary, would have thought them questionable people.

Why is this story included in the scriptures at all? Does it parallel the story of Joseph and Potiphar? If so, how? (For example, compare Genesis 37:32-33 and Genesis 38:25-26.) If we take “these are the generations of Jacob” to be the beginning of the story in these chapters, does this episode fit into the story better?

If we assume that the story belongs in the scriptures, why does Moses interrupt the story of Joseph to tell it to us? If it is necessary that the story be included in scripture, it could have come before the Joseph story without breaking the chronology significantly. So it seems to be where it is for a reason; its placement draws attention to it. What might the reason be for Moses putting it here rather than somewhere else? What has this story to do with the story of Joseph? How does the Judah whom we see in this chapter compare to the man we see in Genesis 44:18-34? What brings about that change? Might it be this event? Is there evidence for such a conclusion?

Word Biblical Commentary (364) notes a possible correlation between this story, the story of Joseph’s sale, and the story of Jacob’s blessing: Jacob deceived his father, Isaac, and he was, in turn deceived by his son Judah, who was then deceived by his daughter-in-law, Tamar. Each cases uses clothing and goats to carry off the deception. Do you think this is a legitimate connection? If so, what is its point?

Chapter 39

For an excellent discussion of the story of Joseph and Potiphar’s wife, read Robert Alter, The Art of Biblical Narrative 107-112. Sternberg also has a useful discussion of the story (The Poetics of Biblical Narrative 423-427).

Verses 1-6: What do we see of Joseph in these verses? Verse 2 says “the Lord was with Joseph.” Compare Genesis 26:3, 24, and 28; 28: 15 and 20; and 31:3. What does Moses use this phrase to signify? Is verse 5 intended to show the fulfilment of the promise to Abraham that all the world would be blessed through his descendants? How are the descendants of Israel a blessing to the world? If this is an example of how the house of Israel is a blessing to the world, should we take the promise not only spiritually but temporally? If we take the promise temporally, what does it mean about the house of Israel today? Verse 6 tells us that Potiphar didn’t concern himself with anything having to do with his household except the food that he ate. Why would that be an exception? Verse 6 ends with a note that Joseph was a handsome, well-shaped man. That would be a more modern translation of “goodly and well favoured.” “Joseph was fine-figured and had a handsome face” would also be a good translation. The only other person described in the same way as Joseph is Rachel (Genesis 29:17). What does that tell us?

Verses 7-9: In verse 4 we saw that Joseph “found grace in his [master’s] sight.” Now we see that Joseph also found grace or favor in his master’s wife’s sight. So what? Paraphrasing, Joseph responds to her lustful demand saying “My master has entrusted me with everything he has and hasn’t kept anything from me.” How does that explain why he cannot lie with Potiphar’s wife? When he says he cannot sin against God, what sin does he seem to have in mind, adultery or violating his master’s trust? What is the significance of each? Contrast Joseph’s behavior with Judah’s. Might this be part of the purpose of chapter 38?

Verses 10-12: How long did Potiphar’s wife go on trying to seduce him? Why do you think Joseph didn’t say anything to Potiphar about his wife’s behavior? A better translation of “about this time (verse 11) would be “as usual.” Notice a parallel between Joseph’s first difficulty and this: in both he loses his cloak and, as the next verses show, in both it is used as a testimony against him. Does that parallel tell us anything? We see very similar wording in verse 6 and verse 12: “he left all that he had in Joseph’s hand” (verse 6) and “he left his garment in her hand”(verse 12). Is the writer making a point with that wording? If so, what is it?

Verses 13-18: Obviously Joseph’s master’s wife tries to establish an alibi in verses 14 and 15. But what else is she trying to do? Why does she say what she does to the other servants in verse 14? The Hebrew word translated “mock” in verses 14 and 17 is used in Genesis 26:8 to refer to sexual intimacy and in Genesis 21:9 to refer to insulting behavior. Why does she use a word that has both meanings here? Compare the story that the wife tells the servants to the version she tells her husband. What do you make of the differences?

Verses 19-20: The usual penalty for rape of one free person by another was death (Deuteronomy 22:23-27). It would be surprising if the penalty for attempted rape of a free woman by a slave was any less. Why does the master deal so leniently with Joseph?

Verses 21-22: How is this a repetition of what we’ve already seen? Is this an expression of the same sentiment we see in 1 Nephi 1:20? What do these verses foreshadow?

37 comments for “JEF Sunday School Lesson 11

  1. Jim, thanks once again for a thoughtful post on Sunday School lessons! I enjoy reading your insights while reading for the week. Keep up the great posts!

  2. The events of Gen. 38 are ugly in so many ways. The intent is to convey the message that Israelites intermingling with Canaanites always leads to messy and unpleasant situations where the Israelites are led to sin and compromise. However, when taking Judah’s behavior here and contrasting it with the incredible sensitivity and pathos of Gen 44, it is plain Judah is a changed man. Thus, showing Israel they can repent and change and respect their ancenstral father.

  3. “Contrast Joseph’s behavior with Judah’s. Might this be part of the purpose of chapter 38?”

    In looking again at chapter 38, I see in verse 16 that Judah does the soliciting, a mistake Joseph did not make. In the story of Joseph and Potiphar’s wife, she issues the invitation. Judah is the instigator in the one story, Potiphar’s wife in the other. Judah gives in sin in the one story, Joseph resists sin in the other. But I see also that Tamar requires a pledge of signet, bracelets, and staff (38:18). What is the significance of that request and Judah’s acquiesence? If we assume that Moses wants to constrast the behavior of Joseph with the behavior of Judah, and that constrast involves a third story, the fidelity Joseph showed his master above all else, are we to suppose that Judah as a master as well, to whom he should have remained faithful? If so, who is that master? Since there is no indication in 39:3-4 that Joseph pledged anything to Potipher in return for his trust, I wonder if Moses is trying to tell us something about how loyalty is obtained.

  4. Jim F: thanks for helping me pick out some details in Joseph’s story, particularly how his father seems to trust Joseph with management early on. I have a question for you that perhaps reveals my naivete: Why do you call what Shechem did rape? I don’t see any of the words I might expect (e.g. “forced himself”) in rape, and he genuinely seems to love her afterward. Am I missing something obvious? Is it a meaning of the word translated “defiled”?

    Regarding your question,

    “How are the descendants of Israel a blessing to the world? If we take the promise temporally, what does it mean about the house of Israel today?”

    I was reminded of an article in Dialogue which states, “Remarkably, Jews constitute only 0.2% of the world population, yet they win over 17% of Nobel Prizes.” While I do not buy the conclusions of the article, the data are interesting.

  5. BrianJ: The Hebrew word that he KJV translators have rendered “defiled” means “to force” or “to force submission.” It has a variety of uses, but in this particular case the force in question was forcing Dinah to have sex. So I used the contemporary English word that describes that, “rape.”

  6. BrianJ (#5), although Jim F.’s question has to do with all of Israel, not just Judah, I think the stats from that article you linked to are interesting, but potentially misleading. I only skimmed parts of the article, but the parts I found discussing the statistics only cursorily mentioned the effects of population distribution (this table clearly shows, for example, that Catholics are disproportionately distributed in Latin America and Africa who are under-represented amongst Nobel prize winners). Many have speculated on causal relationships for this (i.e. Catholicism has overly authoritarian and had a shackling effect on economic and political development), but even so, I think the article you linked to misrepresented the meaning of these statistics.

    A related question that I haven’t looked at carefully is what blessings are particular to the tribe of Judah? I’m guessing and hoping these will be coming up in a reading soon—your post has piqued my interest in this, thanks.

  7. Robert C (#8), I’m glad we agree on the article I linked to: that the data are both interesting and misinterpreted by the authors. You said you only skimmed the article, but if you read it in detail I am sure you would find even more conclusions you wouldn’t buy.

    I liked Jim’s question because it got me to stop thinking of the “whole earth will be blessed” as being only spiritual in nature. The minor point the authors make that I do agree with is that Jews take a disproportionate share of prestigious prizes. I am sure there is a ton of literature on this, explaining why that might be. There’s actually a discussion over here about the article–I would love to read more of your critique.

    Oh, and when I referenced that article, I didn’t mean to narrow down Jim’s question to just the tribe of Judah. For example, the surname “Coen” means a literal descendent of Aaron (hence the tribe of Levi), and what would life be without the Coen brothers?

    Gen 49:8-12 is the blessing Jacob gives to Judah. The NET Bible translator’s notes say of verse 8, “There is a wordplay here; the name Judah (yyhudah) sounds in Hebrew like the verb translated praise (yodukha). The wordplay serves to draw attention to the statement as having special significance.” There are a few blessings spelled out in these verses, especially that Judah will be the ruling tribe and that Shiloh will come through his line.

  8. BrianJ, thanks, I never made the connection between the brilliance of the Hudsucker Proxy (a must-see Coen film) and the Abrahamic covenant!

    I didn’t read the BCC comments, but from the post I would say the emphasis is a bit misplaced. To me, having our own Miltons and Shakespeares has very little to do with Nobel prizes, academic acclaim, or other recognition in the world. But I do think it means high quality in a sense that we haven’t seen yet (though I think there is definite progress in terms of quality Mormon writers).

    In answer to the question Jim F. originally posed, I think American and European success (economic, political, technological, etc.) in general—as Judeo-Christian countries—can be related to this promise.

  9. Jim,
    I can’t tell you how much I appreciate the chance to “eavesdrop” on your conversations about the SS Lessons. As a teacher, it is nice to connect with others who are thinking about and reading these texts so carefully.

    There have been comments about Judah & Tamar (which I agree ought to be discussed so that people know what to do with it), but I think an even greater gap in the curriculum is the missing story of Jacob! We are left with him at his most flawed, having deceived his blind and bedridden father, and then being unceremoniously shipped off, out of harm’s way. The careful structuring of this whole story, with its series of deceptions, altars, and visions shows how Jacob transforms from one who uses deception (Jacob has resonnances with “fraud” and “crooked”) struggling to acheive his rewards, to one who is Israel, the inheritor of the covenant, who is able to freely offer his “presents” or “blessings” to his brother. In freely offering, he gains everything–and wasn’t it always the Lord’s to give anyway? What a great linking story between the fratricide of Cain, the threat of murder by Esau, and the even greater fraternal reconciliation that takes place in the Joseph story. What a great story about the Lord’s ability to take us as we are and shape us into the servants he wants us to be!

  10. Rebecca L: Thank you. I’m glad these strike a chord with you.

    As for Jacob and Esau: I agree that we end the story too soon. That’s why you may have noticed that I tacked chapter 33 onto the materials I wrote for the scriptures assigned for lesson 10. I should also have included the last part of chapter 32, but I was already stretching people’s attention span by adding in chapter 33, so I refrained.

  11. Jim, I’m just back in Sunday School from the nursery. I read this lesson and from earlier studying, had written, “That is just wrong” where Dinah’s brothers kill those guys. I didn’t understand the rape part. Our teacher made that point.

    But I was thinking what they did (Simeon and Levi?) was still wrong because Shechem repented and loved her and asked to marry her and wasn’t their group circumcision evident of that?

    And what I was thinking about that is that those middle east people are just barbaric in nature, they steal women and rape them and kill each other and it explains a lot

    and I just realized my first conversation with you was about national identity. Which I’m thinking here as I read Genesis. But there sure was a lot of mistaken sex and terrible murders in the Old Testament. ]

    And another thing that bothers me is that it’s apparently okay to deceive and have illicit or even incestual sex and kill children if you’re the chosen people. I am just not buying that God.

    Now that I have discovered this (never paid attention to your Sunday School lessons, it will be easier than sitting silent in Sunday School trying not to embarrass Bill and frustrate the teacher)

    But, you know, what a complete crock. Not the Joseph and Potiphar’s wife story, the rest.

  12. annegb: though your comments are always welcome, I can’t let you get away with saying “those middle east people are just barbaric in nature.” That’s racism and it isn’t allowed here. Please don’t use racist language at Times and Seasons.

    That said, let’s get on to the more interesting stuff: Why do you think that the story says that it is all right to deceive, have illicit sex, or kill children if you’re the chosen people? Like Abraham, you are willing to argue with God, but if you are going to, you should probably be right in what you argue. I don’t see any stories in this lesson here about killing children being acceptable, nor illicit sex (though what counts as “licit” used to be different) nor deception.

    For example, the Bible tells the story of Schechem but doesn’t tell us whether he did right or wrong. I think it assumes that we’ll understand that the rape he committed was wrong. And it tells us the story of Simeon and Levi and tells us that they did do wrong. So, I’m trying to figure out just what you think is a crock.

  13. Well, that’s what I realized as I said it, although what I meant was “maybe” at the beginning. I don’t see it is as racist, but I don’t think I understand racism. I remember offending you when I made a blanket comment like that when I first came here. I asked that in class last week in a “do you think” really wanting an answer because the teacher spends a lot of time in Saudi Arabia and I was trying to make that story make sense to me. I didn’t understand why those boys thought it was a good thing to kill all those newly circumcised men. Where is the order of law, that doesn’t seem to be godly?

    Anyway, I’m sorry I did it again.

    I think a lot of the Old Testament is a crock, like where Elisha (I think that’s the one) who called the bears to kill the children who made fun of him. Although I grew up on the Bible and I love it.

    Didn’t you say something about Moses including the story so it must be worthwhile? So what are we to learn from this terrible story within a story? Jacob was upset, but where is the lesson, the parable? I honestly thought God should have struck somebody with lightning. Is it just history, then? And one verse that says Ruben slept with his father’s wife? I kept searching for where it said Rueben gave up his birthright when he did that, and rightly so, but it seemed it just gave facts. It seemed that Jacob did not discipline his children at all.

    Like last week, no week before, the teacher said about how it was good for Lot’s daughters to have sex with their father to continue the line. Is that not a crock? Thinking of Tamar here. I’m supposedly descended from Tamar (although I am not betting anybody’s life on it, it’s that thing that goes back to Adam some people show up with), but still.

    There are stories (and I read it at the plot level) in the Old Testament, but I think a lot of it is a crock.

    I will answer your questions: Our teacher did make the comment that it was rape of Dinah, although what it sounds like is he fell in love with her and wooed her. Rape puts it in context. I think the sin of Dinah’s brothers is that they killed a lot of innocent men, used subterfuge to weaken them and killed them. I suppose under the old law (Ten Commandments?) they had a right to kill Shechem and the men. But why didn’t they do it more honestly, declare war and take their chances in a fair fight. Why couldn’t they just go up and say “we’re mad and this is why and this is what we’re going to do to you?”

    I’m just going through my memory, not checking, but are your referring to Shechem’s asking–hmmm..demanding Dinah in marriage? And there was a difference in religion that might make it an insult? Jacob objected to his children killing them, what do you think he meant to do instead? Would there have been some order of law where he would ask for the life of Shechem and it would have seemed reasonable in that society?

    You ask so many good and thought provoking questions I wish you were our teacher although you would probably smack me some, but these are questions I also ask. I noticed that sometimes it says “Israel” and sometimes it says “Jacob.”

    I actually felt sorry for Jacob’s other children, although sympathy is not the same thing as approbation. It must be hard to have your father prefer your stepmother’s child. I didn’t have parents who functioned that way, so I can’t relate, but my heart went out to them, at the same time, thinking, “oh, you stupid boys.”

    Next week, I’ll study your words better. You just give me too much food for thought, although our teacher was excellent. We used to ask a lot of questions, but no more. Plus my reputation precedes me.

    So could you just tell me this one thing, how is it not a crock that these people are having incestuous relationships and it’s okay? I’m asking, not arguing. Is it like when Joseph Smith said “that which is wrong in one circumstance can be and often is right in another.” But I just can’t stomach killing children, no matter what. Joshua and all that, that torques me.

    Oh, and I enjoyed the insight into Joseph and Potiphar’s wife. I didnt’ think about his life being spared being unusual.

  14. annegb: I dont’ know of a case in which the OT says that it is all right to have incestuous relations. Perhaps you consider Tamar’s relation with Judah to be incestuous. If so, then you have to remember that it wasn’t obviously incestuous to the children of Israel. Judah had a legal obligation to provide her with a husband and children, and he refused that obligation. She took the only course of action she could see and had children by Judah. That bordered on incest but probably wasn’t. But what do you think her other choice was? Living out her life without a family wasn’t a possibility.

    I think you are assuming that because the OT tells the story, it means that it is okay. But quite often it tells the story so that we can see that it is not okay. The story of Simeon and Levi’s slaughter of the Hivites is such a story. I think that the real moral of the story comes only in the whole story of Jacob’s family, not in the particular parts (it is a story about forgiveness and change), but if this story has a moral it is “Don’t go off hot-headed and do something that you’ll later regret–and especially don’t use sacred things to do so.”

    Heck, I rarely smacked my own kids, why would I smack you?

  15. This represents a paradigm shift for me. Are you saying then that the Old Testament is primarily history? No, that can’t be. It must be that we must exercise judgement, sometimes it’s teaching, sometimes it’s just history, which is confusing. And who decides? Like that story of the bald prophet and the child-eating bear, just is wrong.

    The incest I was referring to was Lot and his daughters. Our teacher said it was necessary for Lot’s line to continue. There was a dichotomy of Lot’s apparent righteousness in leaving and not looking back (which I thought was cold to just condemn his wife, because it would be hard for a mother not to look back, although I would have dropped Jessie like a hot rock if she got arrested in Mexico) and then the unrighteous, but necessary? act of sleeping with his daughters to have an heir.

    As I said, I grew up on the bible. I didn’t go to the Mormon church often as a girl, but I would go to whatever church was nearby, usually born again itinerant preachers who made the Old Testament interesting–and taught me about grace.

    I’m going to be front and center next week. And it will be a blessing to Bill and the teacher.
    I will read my Amy Tan book during Sunday School and be quiet, having my questions addressed. Notice I didn’t say answered.

  16. No, I’m certainly not saying that it is primarily history. Whether it is depends on what you mean by “history,” but I don’t think it is primarily history in the usual sense of that word. It is a collection of writings that has been edited into a whole. I think that the main point of the editing is to show the hand of God in Israel’s history. As a result, much gets left out that we would expect in a normal history, things get inserted that we wouldn’t find in a normal history, and the empahsis is on things differently than it would be otherwise. That this is designed to show the hand of god doesn’t mean that God approves of every thing that happened. In fact, showing that he can turn to the good things that he doesn’t approve of shows his hand in history better than things that are exactly what he would approve of.

    As for the particular stories that seem to be on your mind right now, Lot’s daughters and Elisha, the bear, and the “children”: Lot’s daughters thought that they were the last three people on the face of the earth. If they had been, then perhaps the prohibition against incest would have no longer applied, as it must not have applied to the children of Adam and Eve. Many commenetators believe that the Bible told the story of Lots daughters in order to cast aspersions on the descendants of Lot.

    It isn’t clear what happened with Elisha. We don’t have very much information. But it is almost certain that the “children” weren’t children. I think that the most reasonable supposition is that they were young men. We also don’t know what “Go up old baldy” meant. Some have argued that it means something much worse than it seems to us. So, with so little information, I don’t think we are in a position to decide that Elisha did something wrong or that he didn’t. We just don’t know what happened.

  17. “I think a lot of the Old Testament is a crock, like where Elisha (I think that’s the one) who called the bears to kill the children who made fun of him. Although I grew up on the Bible and I love it.”

    On Elisha, see Fred E. Woods, “Elisha and the Children: The Question of Accepting Prophetic Succession,” BYU Studies 32, no. 3 (Summer 1992): 47–58, here

  18. Thanks, I think I’ll enjoy the other stuff available there.

    I always thought there had to be more to the story, but nobody knew the answer. I get caught up on stuff like that which are not essential to my salvation, but I know a crock when I read it.

  19. annegb: I know a crock when I read it

    I no longer know what you mean by this. If it turns out that the stories are meaningful and that you just didn’t know that, what do you mean by adding this?

  20. Ben S., thanks a lot for pointing out that article, very interesting. I put a brief summary of what I viewed as the main points of the article on the Feast wiki here.

    To my unprofessional eye, his arguments look pretty good. Frankly, my biggest reservation in buying his argument hook line and sinker is the fact that this article was published in BYU Studies, and not some more prestigious scholarly outlet. I’m guessing the article was written buy a laymen for whom BYU Studies is as if not more presitgious than other outlets, but I’d have more confidence in the arguments in the article if they had been subject to the larger field of biblical scholarship….

  21. Robert C.: I think your suspicions are reasonable. However, it appears that the author has relevant, reasonable credentials, and BYU Studies does require peer review. He also, quite reasonably, states his conclusion tentatively. In other words, he doesn’t claim more than that this is a reasonable interpretation. So I think we can reasonably rely on the article.

    annegb: I just read my comment at 22. It sounds mean, but I didn’t intend it to be mean. I just intended it as a question: what are you saying with the last remark about knowing a crock when you read it? Didn’t Ben S show you, with the article, that the story about Elisha and the bears, may not be a crock, even though you thought it was when you first read it? If not, why not? If so, then I don’t understand the point you are making.

  22. Jim F.: I no longer have the Hebrew to sustain the argument, and never really did for that matter, but I think the incident with Elisha and the bears gets passed off too easily as a bad translation. Yes, the word translated as ‘children’ can also mean ‘youth’ or ‘young man,’ but it can also refer to infants and newborns, if my memory is not failing. The hard part, though, is the preceding adjective that it is collocated with, which is the standard-issue Hebrew word for ‘small.’ The most reasonable translation of those two words together seems to imply children, rather than twenty-somethings. Woods’s article deals with ‘small’ by suggesting interpretations based on low social status or iniquity from two medieval Jewish commentaries, but then rejects those same rabbis’ interpretations of ‘bald’ when he deals with that word. Philologically, the case that these were not children is much more difficult to make than Woods (or the footnote in our scriptures) suggests. (Check his footnote #3; the partial list of the two words occuring together that Woods cites weakens his argument as much as it strengthens it.)

    Even if these were impudent post-adolescents, I don’t see that sending bears to kill them makes much more sense as an example of divine justice. For me, these verses are still in the category of troubling passages from the OT, of which there are not a few.

  23. Jonathan Green: I don’t think I’m merely passing it off as bad translation, nor do I think that Woods is. I think that we and others are saying, “This is a difficult text. Here are some ways we might deal with the difficulty.” That locates the difficulty in the text, not in the translation.

  24. Jim: I’m largely in agreement with you. I’m all in favor of exploring possible alternate readings of passages that are hard to accept at face value. What I object to–not in your comments, but elsewhere–is the slippage from considering an attractive alternate reading to the unwarranted assumption that the unattractive literal sense has been philologically disproved. I disagree with the certainty in Woods “Certainly they were not simply teasing Elisha…” and in the footnote on 2 Kings 2:23, “Heb. youths (not little children),” when mere teasing and mere children are as acceptable on philological grounds as the alternates, if not more so, despite the interpretive difficulties.

  25. Jonathan: Your objection is a sound one. I agree that it is wiser, especially in such things as the footnotes to our scriptures, to note that the passage is difficult rather than to cover over the difficulty with false certainty.

  26. This is all about the problem of evil. If God promises He will curse the Jews, does that mean God tells the Nazi’s to push them into the gas chambers? So therefore neither does God make she-bears eat children. So, to have spun it more acceptably, perhaps it could have been said instead that God would likely have protected these children if they’d instead revered His prophet? In any case, what’s related to have happened is that after certain children who had scorned Elija’s new successor Elisha end up tragic victims of a wild she-bear, the people who revere God’s holy prophet note a causal relationship between the two, so that the incident ends up in the consciousness of the tribe as a faith-promoting story.

    But for an updated version, imagine that a bunch of rebellious youth who’d been telling awful jokes about a famous advocate for the Church end up in a tragic accident where a boulder falls in the middle road in front of the bus they’re all traveling in. And it becomes said that surely if they had been more faithful God would have protected them. Yet a common way people would tell this story would be to say that God became angry at the youths for mocking His famous advocate so He pushed a boulder in front of their bus and killed a very large group of them.

  27. Kimball Hunt: It is only about the problem of evil as you depict it if the text we have is accurate. That is anything but clear, not because we hope that it isn’t, but because the text isn’t clear: the meaning of the words translated “young children” or “young men” isn’t clear; the meaning of the word translated “bald-headed” isn’t clear. That’s partly why there are multiple interpretations of the text, not just the desire to make a very difficult story easier for us to accept.

  28. Personally I’m reluctant to take a mass slaughter of only youths by a she-bear suddenly appearing out of the wild at face value, despite–even ‘because’ the bible’s depiction of this ominous event as Jehovah’s curse upon those who scorn proper deportment.

    In any case, the circumstances involved–youths who’ve disrespected propriety miraculously ending up dead–would certainly seem to point to a purge. To which, Jim, you seem to allude through your referencing the difficulty interpreting the exact nature of these youths’ offense to “Go up old baldy” in post #18?

  29. The difference between secular history and spritual history can be illustrated by more contemporary events.

    According to the official Church history of the time, when Johnston’s Army was approaching Utah a group of immigrants from Arkansas were slaughtered by Indians at the point of the Mormon’s southernmost Utah outpost. The man who reported to Brigham Young, within Brigham’s capacity as federal Indian agent, was a John D. Lee, who wrote him a report indicating that these immigrants had earned the Indians displeasure through their having poisoned a stream.

    However, local members of the militia, under the direction of their dual priesthood leaders and militia officers and with the assistance of special agent Lee (who incidentally is a third cousin or so of Robert E. Lee), were known by the locals to have taken part in this guerilla action. In fact, Lee, was later a territorial marshall, was of a special class of men, including Lot Smith, O.P. Rockwell, Hoseah Stout and Bill Hickman, served in a protective and “secret service” for the theocractic leadership and were apparently turned to when extraorinary (and covert) things needed to get done.

    In fact, the very next immigrant train through the territory was also attacked. After only a handful of its men were shot, a local militia officer by the name of Jacob Hamblin approached their train. Hamblin explained that the Indians were on the war path, but if these immigrants would surrender to these Indians the greater part of their cattle, then these Indians would allow them to continue on towards their destination in California. Then they could return later and perhaps retrieve some of their cattle.

    After Hamblin explained that the emigrant train which had preceeded them had entirely been wiped out by Indians, these immigrants were only too happy to be able to make it through the territory alive and so they agreed to comply with Hamblin’s terms. Later this group sent men back to southern Utah from California and retrieved a handful of their cattle, which had somehow ended up in the possession of the locals.

    However the mass slaughter of the first train, the ill-fated Fancher party from out of Arkansas, remained in the public imagination.

    My own mother has always explained to me that members of this immigrant party were known to include men who’d apparently either taken part of the murder of Joseph and Hyrum or had otherwise mobbed members of the Church in Missouri. (And while I’m sure it was comforting for the locals to have believed such a thing, I’ve certainly never seen any kind of actual historical proof to back up such speculative claims.) Thus a spiritual history of this incident would read that

    “A group of people who had in some manner disrespected the God’s people and His prophet had been set upon not in this case by feral bears but by wild Indians and slaughtered. And this event served as a warning of God’s curse upon those who would displease Him.”

    However, when you do actually examine this event histortically, it turns out that this “purge” of an entire group of the foreign element who were travelling through Zion at this time of great political tensions had not been due to any special animosity towards this group from the vantage point of the Indians at all. Rather, this entire incident had actually been entirely planned and carried out in full under the direction of special agent Lee and his superior officers of the militia!

  30. Kimball Hunt: I’m not sure I see the point. Has anyone here argued that spiritual history and secular history are the same? I don’t think so. Indeed, I would argue that they are not at all the same, though I think my view of the difference is more sympathetic to allowing spiritual history to make genuine truth claims than is yours. See my “Scripture as Incarnation,” Historicity and the Latter-day Saint Scriptures 17-61, edited by Paul Y. Hoskisson (Provo, Utah: Religious Studies Center Brigham Young University, 2001), if you are interested in a fleshed-out view of my position.

  31. I’d love to read it if I could find it, Jim.

    Of course, Bethel, the site of the children’s being slaughtered by the bears, isn’t just any old town, but ‘a’ if not ‘the’ principal religious center of the time. And surely a prophet visiting their would hope to find a good reception there to bolster his claims and wouldn’t appreciate his being mocked by the young men (or what have you) there, right?

    If the early Axial Age prophet Moses wished to make Israel a kingdom of (“Egyptian type,” sophisticatedly ethical?) priests, there was certainly a lot of tendency for Hebrew prophets to be some traditional type of holy man/tribal medicine man we’d today consider essentially magicians–and recall that such free lance “soothsaying” wasn’t banned until the culmination of the reign of the Judges, with King Saul. In any case, perhaps events within the book of Judges can actually be better understood by examining primitive cultures than by more contemporary of ones.

    When I was young myself I lived near communes adjacent the Califonia redwoods. One of the hippie couples I knew then included one in which the woman, Judith (who seemed so much “older” than me then, her being no doubt in her late twenties) had a degree in anthropology. And her bookshelf bulged with books having to do with anthropology, many of which I read.

    Early on, anthropologists had done extensive work interviewing older members of Indian tribes who were now on reservations but who in earlier times had been living their lives less influenced by modern influences. One of these histories which stands out in my mind is that of a California Indian who described to the anthropologist in great detail his ceremonial putting on a bear skin: Bears were mystical creatures of great import to the California Indians. A tribal member could not even say their Indian word for “bear” as this usage was taboo, so one had to refer to bears in a roundabout way (perhaps such as “the great furry one,” et cetera). Anyway, this young man puts on the bear skin and then he attacks an unsuspecting woman and her children. The Indian woman flees in fright and the “bear man” takes her children, toddlers, and babies and kills them, leaving bear like slashes on them. He leaves bear tracks and even has pre-prepared someting akin to fresh bear excrement which he leaves at the scene.

    My hippies friends (and others) extolled the Noble Savages, so this is not the type of anthropological data which received wide discussion or press. But the point is that this young Indian man never, I’m sure, later said to the woman, “Although most women of the tribe lose many young to natural causes, in your case it was my acting out the ceremonial part of– (Insert here the non-taboo, reverential expression for The Bear) –which caused their untimely deaths.”

    And, later, the teaching could be given to tribal members, obviously, that respect should always be shown to the bear diety. (Had any child who’d been thus killed not sufficiently believed he was to be feared?) So I question, Would a Native American Church goer today say that such a practice, should it be shown actually to be traditional and not entirely ideosyncratic, was ethical?

    And should this believer state categorically that in this instance the traditional practice was not in line with the ethical precepts of the Great Spirit or if s/he should instead equivocate on this point is besides my present point. Which is that whatever certain events described by the bronze age prophets mean can ultimately be determined only as we might be successful at at looking at such things through their own eyes as best as this should be possible. And then–And this is analogous with how contemporary Native American Church goer should respond to traditional tribal culture–we must tread with care when we try to make immediate correlations between the events depicted there and our own times.

  32. Looking for a source for this on-line I immediately came across an Arapaho legend wherein a trickster kills and eats a woman and her children and preserves their meat . . . Just “wonderful”! (I say sarcastically)

  33. If I personally were to try and put a ethical gloss on the “children being eaten by the she bear” incident it would go something like this.

    Bethel was a pre- “temple at Jerusalem” center where there were to be found sacrificial altars of the Levite caste (which caste more traditional had performed human sacrifice–such as Jehovah’s altar fire indeed having being said to have consumed Aaron’s own two first born sons).

    Therefor, the fact that people at Bethel would mock a prophet such as Elisha who so railed so forcefully against pagan practice would result ironically in children there being stalked by a pagan being and ritually killed there.

    And so then, in a round about way, these deaths at the hand of this bear being then could be seen as giving spiritual witness for the people NOT to mock the more highly evolved teachings of God’s prophets. So, in modern terms, my reading of this passage would be to say to the youths:

    “Mock the Lord’s true prophets at your peril, for the pagans perform human sacrifice!”

  34. Kimball, many who comment on the story note, as you do, that Bethel is a religious center. Indeed, it was the home of Elijah if I remember correctly. They also note that the symbol of Elijah’s authority was his hairy mantle, the mantle that Elisha picked up on Elijah’s ascension. “Go down baldy” could have meant “Get out of here, you usurper [i.e., the person who doesn’t really have the hairy mantle].” On such a reading, you’re pretty close to that interpretation: “Mock the prophets of God at your own peril.” Some have argued that the young men were members of the prophetic school of which Elijah was head and, so, were refusing to recognize Elisha as the legitimate head of those schools. I think that takes the evidence further than it will allow us to go, but I think it is not unreasonable to read the story as one of young people accusing Elisha of usurping Elija’s authority. If you’ve not already, read the piece by Wood’s to which Ben S links (#20). It makes a reasonable tough not conclusive argument.

    If you want to read “Scripture as Incarnation,” you should be able to use the bibliographic information I gave in 33 to get it by interlibrary loan from your local library. Or, you can send me an e-mail message via times and seasons: jim at timesand seasons dot org. I’ll send you a photocopy.

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