The Joseph Epic–Genesis 49:28-50:14

It is almost Halloween, so I will deal with stories about mummies, Jacob’s mummy and Joseph’s mummy.  Jacob’s death and burial is the subject of Genesis 49:28-50:14.

Most of Genesis 49 does not belong to the Joseph epic.  It is a poem with sayings about the various tribes. Genesis 49:28b naturally follows 49:1a.

The closing verses of Genesis 49 reflect a sanctuary legend out of Hebron.  Those who believe in the Documentary Hypothesis say that the verses are from P, the priestly document.  The verses certainly reflect a tradition that comes from the Jerusalem priesthood, whose roots were at the Hebron sanctuary.  Saying that it is priestly material, though, does not really help.  Some of the priestly material is late, after the exile, from the time of Ezra.  However, Jeremiah, before the exile, seemed to know–and dislike–some of the priestly material.  And the Aaronic blessing (Numbers 6:24), which is priestly, has shown up in inscriptions dated as early as the eighth and ninth century B.C.E.  So it was a developing tradition.  I have my doubts that it was ever a single, separate document.

A tradition that developed at the Hebron sanctuary could be from before the monarchy.  The tradition was that the patriarchs were buried in a cave near Hebron (49:29-32).  This was, no doubt, a matter of pride to the priests at Hebron.  But was it true?

The Joseph story seems to put this tradition along side different, alternative traditions.  For instance, the claim that Jacob was buried in a cave seems odd when compared to his statement in 50:5 that he had dug out his own tomb at an unspecified place in Canaan.

Then there is the strange account of the funeral procession out of Egypt.

After he died, Jacob was mummified in the Egyptian fashion (50:2-3).  Joseph got permission from Pharaoh to carry the body back to “the land of Canaan.”  Joseph travels with “all the servants of Pharaoh” as well as his own household and his brothers.  It was quite a procession: “chariots, horsemen, a great retinue (50:9).  The story of the embalming, seventy days of mourning, and this procession conveys a strong sense of the solemnity of this occasion and the importance of Jacob.  Seventy days was about the period Egyptians mourned a Pharaoh.

If you are at all familiar with routes and travel in Egypt and Palestine, you know that the direct way to the Hebron valley is the road along the coast toward Beersheba and beyond–the reverse of the way Jacob is said to have come to Egypt (46:1-7).  But this big procession did not go that way.

Somehow, they go to the eastern side of the Jordan.   “They came to the threshing floor of Atad, which is beyond the Jordan” (50:10).  Either they crossed the Sinai to the Gulf of Aqaba and went up the King’s Highway toward Damascus, or they passed Hebron and Jerusalem and went down to Jericho to ford the Jordan.  As the story now stands, they then turned around and went back to the Hebron valley to bury Jacob.  (I know that those who think Moses wrote Genesis would say that for Moses, who had never been in Palestine, across the Jordan would be the west bank.  But why mention the Jordan at all if the trip was from Egypt to the Hebron valley?)

Remember that the early Jacob stories in Genesis have Jacob’s home in the Jabbok river valley in the Transjordan.  So there must have been a tradition that Jacob had been carried back to that region for burial.  In the present story, the Hebron tradition has turned that into a stop for mourning on the (very convoluted) way to the cave near Hebron.

Historians will wonder about this.  We don’t know the exact location of the threshing floor of Atad.  You could say that Jacob was buried there and the sanctuary legend at Hebron obscured that tradition.  There may have been other burial traditions for the patriarchs connected to the sanctuaries at Shechem (Genesis 33:19-20 and Joshua 24:32) and Luz/Bethel (Genesis 48:3).

For a wilder theory, you could take the view that Jacob and Israel represent a fusion of two historical individuals.  The fact that this patriarch has two names

“suggests to many scholars that two patriarchs lie behind the figure Jacob/Israel.  Traditions about and originally distinct ancestor named Israel. in other words, were merged with those about Jacob as a consequence of early process of tribal affiliation” (P. Kyle McCarter, Jr. in the article “Israel” p. 434, Harper’s Bible Dictionary).

McCarter goes on to talk about how Israel might be the father of the central tribes of Ephraim and Manasseh, as well as the other Rachel tribe, Benjamin.  He just says that Jacob may have been the ancestor of “another group”.  (It is interesting that one of the Hyksos Pharaohs who ruled lower Egypt was named Yacob-Har.  Jacob?)  On this theory there could be more than one historical burial place.

In keeping with my Halloween theme, here is another Twilight Zone type theory.  The coffin of Joseph might have been the basis for the Ark of the Covenant.  Genesis 50:26 ends the Joseph epic by saying that Joseph, having lived 110 years died and was mummified and put in a coffin in Egypt.  The word for coffin is the same as the word for ark.  Exodus 13:19 says that Moses took the bones of Joseph with him on the Exodus.  A Jewish tradition says that the Israelites carried the Ark of the Covenant and the coffin of Joseph side by side through the wilderness.  But a speculation that came out of German scholarship was that the coffin of Joseph was the inspiration for the idea of the Ark of God.

Since Joseph was mummified, his coffin may actually have been a fancy sarcophagus, rather than a box.  At any rate, Joshua 24:32 has him being buried at Shechem.

More seriously, we should consider the possibility that Israel originated in the Transjordan.  The 13th century Pharaoh, Merneptah, claimed to have defeated Israel (the first sure mention of Israel outside the Bible) right after he defeated the city state of Yanoam.  Yanoam seems to have been on the Jordan.  So Israel most likely was across the Jordan.  Judges attributed to Jephthah, who was supposed to have lived about 1100 B.C.E., the claim that Israel had dwelt in the Transjordan for 300 years (Judges 11:26).  Could Merneptah’s scribe and Jephthah have been talking about the same Israel?

I will finish up with one more post on the Joseph epic, and then, in honor of the late Frank Moore Cross, I want to talk about his theory about the tribe of Reuben, which kind of goes along with what I just said about Israel and the Transjordan.

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About theoutwardquest

I have many interests, but will blog mostly about what I read in the fields of Bible and religion.
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