Wednesday, 24 October 2012

THE HOUSE OF JACOB. Pt.2 (Genesis 25, 11-50, 25). By FATHER FELIX, O.M.Cap., L.S.S.

Joseph was a virtuous man and he had God's protection. In slavery he rose steadily in the esteem of his master, until before long Putiphar entrusted his house and property to His care: and the Lord blessed the house of the Egyptian for Joseph's sake, and multiplied all his substance (i.e., property), both at home and in the fields." (39, 5). There were troubles in store for him, however. Morals in ancient Egypt were of a low standard, as is well-known from extra-biblical sources. Joseph had inherited no small share of his mother's good looks; and the wife of Putiphar fell in love with him, and tried to lure him into committing adultery. He steadfastly refused time after time. Then when she saw herself powerless to seduce him her fascination turned into raging enmity, and she accused him unjustly to her husband. Joseph was promptly removed from his high position and committed to prison. But here again his sterling good qualities won for him the favour of the gaoler, and he was placed in charge of the prisoners (39, 23). We now obtain a glimpse of the arbitrary rule of the kings of ancient Egypt. The chief baker and the chief cup bearer (or butler) of the royal palace offended Pharao, and they were put in the prison where Joseph was in charge. One morning he found them more than usually depressed. Each of them had had a dream the previous night. They could not interpret the meaning of these dreams, and consequently they were annoyed. Joseph, enlightened by God, told them the prophetical meaning of the dreams—for prophetical they were indeed. The cup-bearer had dreamt that he saw a vine with three branches which sprouted and produced grapes. He took the grapes, pressed the juice from them into Pharao's special drinking-cup, and gave it to the king to drink. Joseph told him that in three days he would be restored to his former position. The baker dreamed that he was carrying on his head (in Egyptian fashion) three baskets. In the topmost of these were various kinds of cooked food, and the birds of the air were eating out of it. Joseph told him that in three days Pharao would condemn him to be hanged, and the birds of prey would eat his corpse. After three days came the king's birthday, and a great feast was held. Such feasts were always a time for revising judgments; and on this occasion, as Joseph had predicted, the baker was condemned to be hanged, while the butler was pardoned and restored.
Joseph had asked the cup-bearer to remember him and plead for his release; but the cup-bearer forgot. Two years afterwards an incident occurred which recalled Joseph to his memory. Pharao himself was disturbed by dreams. In one he saw seven fat cattle feeding on the banks of the Nile, and seven lean cattle came up from the river and devoured them. In another he saw a stalk of corn having seven full, ripe ears; and then came seven thin, wasted ears which destroyed the good ones. The official interpreters of the court could make nothing of these dreams. Then the cupbearer told Pharao of Joseph and of his interpretation of the dreams two years earlier. Joseph was brought to the king, and at once he gave the meaning of these dreams of Pharao which again were prophetical: there would be in Egypt seven years of great abundance, followed by seven years of severe famine. Further, Joseph advised Pharao to take means of dealing with the coming crisis by storing up the extra corn of the abundant years, so that it would be available for "the seven years of scarcity." (41, 54). Pharao was much pleased with Joseph. He saw that the young Hebrew had great wisdom, and he appointed Joseph his chief executive officer in the kingdom, gave him the royal signet ring, a robe of silk and a gold chain—signs of his rank; and he commanded all the people to honour him as governor of the country. The king also gave to Joseph an Egyptian name: Safnat Paaneah (41, 45). The translation of this name is most probably ‘God saith: he is living.' Contrary to the general usage as found in Egyptian inscriptions with similar names no particular divinity such as Isis or Amon or Ra is named in this title of Joseph, but simply God. This is through "the extreme courtesy of Pharao. Good Hebrew that he was, Joseph did not adore the Egyptian gods, and his new name was a mark of respect for his monotheistic religion." Joseph also married Aseneth, daughter of another Putiphar—the pagan priest of Heliopolis (the city of Ra, the sungod); and of this marriage there were two sons, Manasses and Ephraim, of whom later on we hear a great deal. At once Joseph made preparations for storing the corn of the seven fruitful years, during which "there was so great abundance of wheat that it was equal to the sand of the sea." (41,49). Then came the lean years, and with a vengeance. Soon the plenty of the fruitful years was consumed, and, famine prevailed everywhere. The people came to the king clamouring for food, and Pharao told them simply: "Go to Joseph”. (41, 55). Joseph sold the wheat which he had stored to the Egyptians; and outsiders quickly began to flock to Egypt "to buy food, and to seek some relief of their want.” (41, 57).
What follows is a most interesting melodrama. The famine was keenly felt in Chanaan, and thither too came the news that wheat was to be got in Egypt. Jacob sent ten of his sons to Egypt to buy wheat, keeping only Benjamin at home. The ten patriarchs went to the governor of Egypt, but did not recognise in him their brother, whom they had sold into slavery twenty years earlier. Joseph, however, knew them; but he acted as though he did not, and spoke to them through an interpreter. He then feigned to think that they were Asiatic spies come to study the weak places of the frontier at the north-east of Egypt. They protested that they had no such intention; that they were ten sons of twelve, of whom the youngest was at home with his father and one was dead. Joseph, to test their truthfulness, forsooth! said that the youngest must be brought. He had them put in prison for three days. Then he kept Simeon as a hostage in Egypt and sent the nine home—Simeon to be released when they would return with Benjamin. They were given the wheat they required, and without their knowledge the money they paid for it was put back in the sacks with the wheat. They returned to Hebron and told all their strange adventure to Jacob, who at once protested that he would never allow Benjamin to go to Egypt (43, 38). In time, however, famine and dire want forced Jacob to alter his purpose. He sent his sons to Egypt again; and this time Benjamin went, for they dare not go without him. When Joseph saw his brothers he ordered a feast to be prepared, and invited them to share it. This only made them afraid and suspicious, especially since they had no explanation of the money which they had found in their sacks. What if there were underlying all this a plot designed by these cultured Egyptians and calculated to entrap and enslave them—simple, nomad Asiatics! So they first went to Joseph's steward and explained how they had found the money returned; but he reassured them, and brought Simeon forth from his prison to join them. Next they offered presents to Joseph. He accepted them, and enquired about Jacob their father; but seeing Benjamin, his full brother, he could not keep back his tears. He retired from the audience hall to give free play to his emotion where no one could see him. The feast was now made ready. Joseph, his Egyptian courtiers and retinue, and his brothers dined in the same room, but at separate tables to satisfy Egyptian religious customs.  The drama did not finish even then. Joseph allowed his brothers to depart without making known to them who he was. He told his steward to put into Benjamin's sack of wheat his (Joseph's) silver drinking-cup and also the money which Benjamin had paid for the wheat. Then when the brothers were gone a little way they were pursued by Joseph's orders and accused of stealing the cup. They protested their innocence, and offered to give up to death him in whose baggage it would be found, the others to go into slavery. To their awful consternation it was found in Benjamin's sack. They returned in sorry plight. Juda made a most moving appeal to Joseph on behalf of Benjamin: he was the favourite son of his father; his full brother was dead; Jacob would die of grief if this boy were kept in Egypt a slave; Juda himself would willingly remain a slave in his stead rather than return to Chanaan and witness his father's sorrow . . . (41, 1-34). Joseph could restrain himself no longer. He commanded all the Egyptians to leave his presence while he revealed to his brothers who he was. They were astounded, but also afraid. Joseph reassured them, and pointed out that God's Providence had arranged all this to preserve their chosen family. He told them to return home at once and bid their father come to Egypt to settle in Gessen (Hebrew—Goschen) near Joseph. Pharao too was glad to see Joseph's brothers, and he provided even the means of transport for Jacob and his property. They returned and told Jacob. The announcement was so startling that for a time he could not believe it. But when they told him all in detail, and showed him the waggons sent by Pharao he was at last convinced: "his spirit revived, and he said: It is enough for me if Joseph my son be yet living: I will go and see him before I die.” (45, 28).
Jacob, now a hundred and thirty years old, gathered all his property (it was mostly in sheep, goats and cattle), and he, with his family to the number of seventy, and their servants and slaves, set out to go to Egypt. At Bersabee he delayed in order to offer sacrifice to God, and there a vision in the night assured him of the Divine approbation of his journey, and of prosperity in Egypt for him and his tribe. He did not go directly to Joseph (who was probably at Heliopolis) but to Gessen. From Gessen he sent Juda to apprise Joseph of his arrival. At once Joseph came to meet his father. They both wept for joy, and Jacob expressed well his emotion when he said: "Now shall I die with joy, because I have seen thy face and leave thee alive." (46, 30). Joseph brought his father and five of his brothers to present them to the king. Before doing so he told them that when Pharao would question them about their mode of living they should not conceal that they and their ancestors were shepherds. They would then be allowed to settle in the good pasture land of Gessen at the north-east of the Delta near the frontier of Egypt, to live their own lives apart from the people of the country and to retain their own religion and traditions, because "the Egyptians have all shepherds in abomination." (46, 34). The king received Jacob well and allowed him and his family to live in Gessen. Meantime the famine increased, and the money of the Egyptians was all expended. They were forced to mortgage their cattle and lands to obtain corn and wheat. Joseph thus enriched the royal treasury and secured to Pharao an annual levy of one-fifth of the produce of the land (47, 26).
Jacob lived in his new home for seventeen years. When he knew his death to be near he called Joseph to him, and as a last favour asked his son that he should be buried not in Egypt but in the burying place of Abraham at Hebron. Joseph promised on oath that it would be so. Some time after this Jacob fell into his last illness and word was sent to Joseph, who came bringing his two sons, Manasses and Ephraim. When he was told that Joseph was coming the old patriarch, although weak and dying, was so consoled that "being strengthened he sat on his bed.” (48, 2). He spoke to Joseph of the Divine promise made to him at Bethel that his descendants would possess the country of Chanaan. He adopted as his own the two sons of Joseph. He spoke again of Joseph's mother, Rachel, and of her death at Ephrata—it was ever a vivid memory to him: "Rachel died from me in the land of Chanaan in the very journey, and it was springtime.” (48, 7). We had that pathetic little detail about the time of the year before, and now it comes with even greater pathos here from the failing patriarch's dying lips. Jacob now called Manasses and Ephraim towards him, and thanking God fervently that he had seen Joseph and Joseph's sons he kissed the two boys affectionately. Joseph stood before his father with Ephraim on his left and Manasses on his right until they should receive Jacob's blessing. Jacob crossed his hands and placed his right hand on the head of Ephraim (the younger), his left on the head of Manasses. Joseph, thinking that it was an error of his father whose sight was now failed, tried to change his hands. But Jacob persisted. It was no error. Ephraim was to be the greater. And from then Ephraim takes precedence over his elder brother. Jacob blessed them both and prophesied great prosperity for them. Then he spoke to Joseph, foretold that the Divine protection would continue with him to the end, and that his remains too would be brought back to the Promised Land for burial. Jacob concluded his discourse to Joseph: " I give thee a portion above thy brethren, which I took out of the hand of the Amorrhite with my sword and bow." (48, 22). The first part of this sentence is quite clear—Joseph's two sons obtained each a portion in the division of Chanaan among the tribes of Israel ( Josue 16, 1). But a difficulty arises with regard to the second part, because Jacob was a timid character and there is no record of his prowess with the sword and bow. Joseph's sons obtained the country about Sichem (later Samaria). There is reference to this in the Gospel: "He (Our Lord) cometh therefore to a city of Samaria, which is called Sichar, near the land which Jacob gave to his son Joseph." (St. John 4, 5). But Jacob had bought this land in a very peaceable manner as we saw above. Some (e.g., Fillion) regard this as a prophecy of the future conquest under Josue; and Jewish tradition supports the explanation. Hetzenauer, however, regards it as referring to an unjust reoccupation of the land by the Amorrhites (i.e., Chanaanites) in violation of their contract, and their forcible expulsion by Jacob—incidents not recorded for us by the sacred writer.
Jacob now assembled his twelve sons about him, and spoke prophetically of the future of their respective tribes. Ruben, Simeon and Levi had committed grave crimes; and his words to them are full of foreboding. Juda is the privileged one, heir to the Messianic promises: "The sceptre shall not be taken away from Juda, nor a ruler from his thigh (in Hebrew—' nor a staff from between his feet') till he comes that is to be sent, and he shall be the expectation of nations (Hebrew—`and to him shall be the obedience of nations')"—(49, 10). The prophecies for Zabulon, Issachar, Dan, Gad, Aser, Nephtali refer merely to their places in the Promised Land. On Joseph, however, his dying father lingers lovingly. He has much to say in praise of his past career—glorious alike in adversity and in prosperity, and in promise of a splendid destiny: "The blessings of thy father are strengthened with the blessings of his fathers: until the desire of the everlasting hills should come; may they be upon the head of Joseph, and upon the crown of the Nazarite (i.e., Prince) among his brethren." (49, 26). Last in order came Benjamin. The old man was weakening fast, and he spoke briefly of the warlike character of the future tribe of Benjamin "Benjamin a ravenous wolf .. ." (49, 27). Again he asked that he should be buried in the Cave of Machpelah with Abraham and Isaac; then "he drew up his feet upon the bed, and died: and he was gathered to his people." (49, 32). Joseph wept copiously for his father. He commanded skilled servants to embalm the body. This was a highly developed art in ancient Egypt, and the process took forty days. In Egyptian fashion seventy days were given over to mourning. Then with Pharao's sanction Joseph took the mummified body to Chanaan for burial. "A great company" (50, 9) formed the cortege—Joseph, his brothers, their families and slaves, officials of the royal house, the governors of Egypt and a troop of soldiers. Before crossing the Jordan seven days were spent in mourning (in the Hebrew manner); the Egyptians returned, Joseph and the Israelites went on to Chanaan, and Jacob was buried with his fathers in Hebron.
Joseph's brothers were ill at ease lest he might take vengeance on them for their misdeeds, now that Jacob was dead. They sent a message to him, therefore, to say that Jacob, before he died, had asked him to forgive their past injustice to him. He nobly pardoned them, reminded them that God's Providence had brought good from their evil, and promised to protect them in Egypt. He lived in Egypt to the age of a hundred and ten, and saw his great-grandchildren. Before his death he prophesied that by a special intervention of God the Hebrews would be brought from Egypt and led back to Chanaan. When that time would come his (Joseph's) remains were to be taken from Egypt also. After his death his body was mummified and buried temporally in Egypt, to he exhumed at the Exodus and finally buried in Sichem near Jacob's Well. ( Josue 24, 32).
The narrative of this portion of Genesis is in perfect accord with what we know of the religion, history and social life of ancient Egypt. The seven years of plenty and the seven years of famine are very easily understood of those eastern countries where the produce of the earth is entirely dependent on the rainfall, and where drought means certain famine. Egypt in particular is called by Herodotus "the gift of the Nile,” because the immense fertility of the Delta region is owing to the annual overflow of the Nile; and in those ancient times this overflow was not artificially controlled as now. Again, there were commercial relations between Egypt and Palestine from 4,000 B.C. on account of the economic conditions of both countries and their nearness one to another. Syria is mountainous with poor soil; but rich in timber and aromatic plants; varied in climate, and therefore, in products. Cedar wood was imported into Egypt to provide boxes for the mummies. Egypt is low-lying, fertile, rich in grain and pasture—later in the time of the Roman Empire it was "the granary of Rome." This sheds light on the incident of the sale of Joseph into slavery to the caravan of merchants going into Egypt. Clear evidence also is found of peaceful penetration into the Delta by Asiatic tribes, and the Asiatics were noted for their great facility for adapting themselves to a new country. Jacob is only one of many heads of semi-nomad tribes who acted thus.  Nor was the penetration always peaceful. At one period these Asiatics took over forcibly a portion of the Nile country, and ruled it with their own kings. During the thirteenth Egyptian dynasty the country was weakened politically by internal wars and feuds. Asiatics in thousands swarmed into the country across the unguarded northeastern frontier. In a short time they became rulers (a very natural development), and these rulers are known as the Hyksos kings. At first they destroyed the temples, oppressed the people, established their own worship of their own god, Sutech. They built a new Capital at Avaris, for they had not the whole Delta but only the eastern part; a native Egyptian dynasty ruled at the same time in Thebes. Gradually, however, they accommodated themselves to Egyptian culture, and even appointed Egyptians to administrative posts. In time the native Theban dynasty broke their power, drove them out, and recovered the territory.  All this is in harmony with Joseph's sudden rise to power in Egypt. It is admitted that the Hyksos were ruling in our period, and naturally an Asiatic would be favoured, so that Joseph would find himself placed above his former master, Putiphar (an Egyptian, from the name). Semitic names in plenty have been found in the tombs and on the monuments of Egypt; and a certain Nehemen in particular, an Asiatic, who attained high rank under Apophis, a Hyksos king, resembles Joseph very closely in his career.  Details such as the many-coloured tunic as a sign of special favour, the gold ring and collar as a sign of high rank in Egypt, have been confirmed from the excavations; while the Egyptian practice of embalming the dead is a commonplace of archaeology.
1. Such then in summary is the narrative of the Book of Genesis; and this brings us to the end of the Patriarchal period of Old Testament history. Of the fortunes of Jacob's family in Egypt the Bible does not tell us; we next hear of them very many years later in Exodus; and in the meantime the tribe of Jacob has become the Hebrew nation.
2. The difference between the divinely inspired early history of the Hebrew people and the early history of other peoples, e.g., Babylon, Egypt, Greece, Rome, is very striking. These latter make of their remote ancestors supermen, and trace back their origin to gods and goddesses. Their primitive history is mythology in which impossible powers and impossible achievements are attributed to human beings. Their gods are less than human; their men are more than human. It is far otherwise with the Book of Genesis: the Patriarchs are presented always as human. They prophesy; they achieve wonderful things; but always as instruments of the One True God Who speaks and works in them. The honesty of the human writer of Genesis is shown everywhere in his work, but especially when he tells of the failures of these great men (and great men they were indeed), of their sins and crimes. They are intensely human in their joys and sorrows; they are still human in their greatest successes; but they are pathetically human in their weakness and in the fluctuations of fortune resulting from that weakness.
3. The Book of Genesis is of great and perennial interest: "There is nothing more beautiful than Genesis; nothing more useful." As literature it is rich, varied, sublime. As history it is of supreme value, and every new discovery of scholars bears fresh testimony to its exactitude. As the inspired Word of God it is instructive and elevating and holy. To Dionysius of Halicarnassus is attributed the saying that ‘History is philosophy by examples.' This is very true, indeed; and it follows that Sacred History is theology by examples. From the reading of Genesis we learn much of God's infinite might and majesty, of His mercy and condescension to human weakness. Especially do we see the working of His divinely benevolent Providence, disposing all things wisely, bringing good out of evil as He alone can, and "leading Joseph like a sheep." (Psalm 79, 2). Lastly, the frequent mention of the Messianic promises in this first Book of the Bible reminds us of the unity of the whole Bible in its central theme, Jesus Christ: "For the end of the Law is Christ . . ." Romans 10, 4); " the law was our pedagogue in (in the Greek 'unto,' i.e., leading unto) Christ." (Galatians 3, 24).
Nihil Obstat: FR. CANICUS A. KILKENNY, Censor Theologicus Deputatus.  Imprimi Potest:  FR. COLMANUS A DONERAILE, Minister Provincialis. January 17th, 1938. Nihil Obstat: RECCAREDUS FLEMING, Censor Theologicus Deputatus.  Imprimi Potest:  EDUARDUS, Archiep, Dublinen, Hiberniae Primas. Dublini, 9 die Feb. 1938. ********