Real Bible Studies: The Sons of Israel

img_6262The Bible is as much a political document as it is a religious one. Stories printed there were crafted to support a specific narrative, perhaps to bolster the reign of a particular king or party in its quest for control. Over time, these stories were edited, re-edited, and re-arranged to support different narratives. One such example can be found in Richard Elliott Friedman’s work, The Hidden Book in the Bible, where he uses textual analysis of the earliest Greek sources to piece together a complete book covering the story of creation through the conquest of Canaan that had been spread throughout the early books of the Old Testament. The Bible Unearthed by Israel Finkelstein and Neil Asher Silberman, attempts to reconcile the story of Israel told in its archaeological record with what’s written in the pages of the Bible, and finds a much different narrative written in the ruins. Kings who were vilified in the Bible emerge as some of the longest ruling and most successful in the archaeological record. Even within the pages of the Bible, different books provide different views of the tribes who came to be known as the children of Israel, in particular Genesis and Judges.

In order to understand the purpose of a literary work, it’s necessary to look at the stories presented and the way in which the narrative is crafted. In Genesis, following the flood, the main hero is Abraham, whose story takes up chapters eleven through twenty-five. Excluding the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, which exclusively involves Lot, that’s fourteen of the fifty chapters of Genesis. This isn’t surprising, considering what a towering figure Abraham is in Middle Eastern lore. His son, Isaac only gets a few chapters, one of which is a retelling of a story originally attributed to his father, before Jacob’s story takes over, and the stories of Jacob and his family take up the rest of Genesis, which ends with the death of Joseph in Egypt.

In it, we learn how Jacob deceived his brother Esau (also known as Edom father of the Edomites), claimed Esau’s birthright, and fled to his uncle’s family to avoid retribution. Jacob fell in love with Rachel, but was deceived by his uncle into marrying her sister Leah, then had to perform additional servitude to gain Rachel’s hand, and Genesis tells us Rachel was his favored wife. Jacob also had two concubines, Bilhah and Zilpah, who produced four of the sons who would be the progenitors of the tribes who later identified themselves as the children of Israel. Leah is the mother of most of Jacob’s offspring, including Levi and Judah, two prominent tribes in later Jerusalem and she’s listed as being buried with Jacob in Genesis 49. We learn that Rachel bore two sons, Joseph and Benjamin. Though Leah is the most productive of Jacob’s wives, being the mother of six sons and one daughter, Dinah, all the attention is focused on Rachel, naming her as Jacob’s most beloved wife. This focus on Rachel extends all the way to the Gospel of Matthew, who, in relating the slaughter of the innocents, misquotes as prophesy, verses from Jeremiah lamenting the exile of Ephraim (Rachel crying out for her lost children). This is despite the fact that the majority tribe in Jerusalem was that of Judah, who was Leah’s son.

Where Judges exhibits very crude editorial oversight, adding lines here and there to connect what were obviously individual tales from different sources, Genesis seems to have been crafted with the specific intention of relating the origin story of the sons of Israel. Rather than simply collecting the myths and legends, the author of Genesis used them as the basis for a new telling of the story, and Genesis is far more polished than Judges, which is loosely cobbled together with only a cursory attempt to unify the stories — the editorial asides that the stories happened before Israel had a king. In Genesis, the narrative has been crafted to unify the story of the sons of Israel, and to highlight one son in particular, Joseph. Most likely, the different stories came from sources similar to what’s found in Judges, that the editors of Genesis had to reconcile. Each tribe that claimed descent from Abraham undoubtedly had its own traditions about him, just as Arabs and Jews do today. Since most of the population couldn’t read, the editors could afford to add in multiple traditions and let scholars debate them later.

In all probability, Genesis was assembled by someone who came from the tribe of Ephraim — the tribe who claimed descent from Joseph — or felt a kinship with it, given how prominent Joseph is depicted within the narrative. Ironically, Ephraim is one of the tribes said to have been carted off by the Assyrians, never to be heard from again though remnants could have escaped to Judah after the exile. A later editor who knew of the fate of Ephraim, may have altered the story somewhat to give Judah more prominence, but the narrative flow still makes Joseph the ultimate hero of the story. The only story we get on Judah outside the context of Joseph’s story is of his relationship with his daughter-in-law Tamar, with whom he fathered Perez, the ancestor of David. Joseph was the full brother of Benjamin, whose tribe avoided the fate of Ephraim and survived to become one of the more prominent tribes that inhabited Jerusalem up to the time of Jesus. Joseph is also the reason his brothers go to Egypt, from which their descendants must flee in Exodus.

Joseph’s story starts in Genesis 37, and takes up the bulk of the remaining chapters of Genesis ending with the blessing of Ephraim and Manasseh in Genesis 48 and Joseph’s death in chapter 50. We learn of his gift for prophecy, his brothers’ jealousy of him, and their initial decision to kill him, which is softened into the action of selling him into bondage. Reuben is the brother who prevents the others from killing Joseph, and Judah is the one who convinces them to sell Joseph into bondage, which sets in motion the fulfillment of Joseph’s prophecies. The very next chapter in Genesis relates the story of Judah and Tamar which the author of Ruth uses as the basis for the genealogy of David. With the story of Jacob’s death in Genesis 49, Joseph takes the lead on burial and tributes to his father, with his brothers hardly being mentioned at all.

The tribes most often mentioned in Judges are Judah, Ephraim, Benjamin, the Levites, and Dan. The opening chapter of Judges gives an update on the various conquests of the tribes which may have been inserted by a later editor to tie the book to the previous story of Joshua. In this introduction, it’s stated that the Benjamites were not able to drive the Jebusites from Jerusalem and lived along side them and that other tribes were unable to dislodge the Canaanites from their land, setting up the temptations that will lead the Israelites astray throughout Judges. At the end of Judges, a Levite from the hill country of Ephraim has problems while spending the night among the tribe of Benjamin, leading to the near destruction of the tribe in the resulting retaliation. In Genesis, we’re told that Joseph, the father of Ephraim, was the loving older brother of Benjamin.

In Judges, Benjamin, Ephraim, and Judah among others, are tribes; in Genesis, they’re individuals, and in Genesis 49 Jacob/Israel blesses each of his sons and the words he uses sum up how each tribe was viewed by the author or editor of Genesis. One brother who does not fare well in the narrative is Levi, which is interesting given that the Levites, or priestly class which includes Moses and Aaron in Exodus, is said to descend from Levi. In Genesis, Simeon and Levi are criticized for using their swords in anger — the incident is described in detail in Genesis 34 pertaining to Dinah and the Shechemites — and condemned to be scattered and dispersed in Israel. The two sons who get most of the praise, not surprisingly, are Judah and Joseph, each with long blessings which places them above all the rest. Benjamin is compared to a ravenous wolf, and in Judges, displays considerable military prowess when fighting the other tribes. Reuben, the oldest son, is all but disowned by his father for offenses he committed and the remaining sons each gets a descriptive line or two.

Isaac Asimov, in his Guide to the Bible, identifies stories in Judges as perhaps the oldest material to appear in the Bible. The story of Deborah, is notable, in that it presents us with one of the few women in the Bible who is not solely defined by the men in her life, as are most of the women in Genesis. The stories in Judges bear almost no kinship to those in Genesis, except for the tribal identity of the sons. Judges follows the pattern of Israel “doing evil in the eyes of the Lord” which leads to them being conquered by one of the local, larger tribes, prompting the need for a leader or “judge” to arise and save them.

Bear in mind, the people who crafted the stories that eventually found themselves in the Bible were in constant competition with other tribes for the resources of the land they inhabited. Three of the most prominent mentioned in the Bible were the Moabites, the Ammonites, and the Philistines. In Genesis, the attitude of the author to the Moabites and Ammonites was made plain by reporting that they were the product of the illegitimate and incestuous union of Lot and his two daughters following the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. Judges reports on these tribes as well and chronicles many of the difficulties faced by the Israelites at the hands of the Philistines. In particular, Samson has a considerable beef with the Philistines for reasons unknown, other than they’re oppressing the Israelites. Samson’s actions, however, are usually in service to his own selfish motives, rather than in service to any of the tribes.

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