Subproject A: The Cultural and Historical World behind Genesis 25–50

A1: Shifting Historical Realities Reflected in the Jacob Cycle (Gen 25-35)

Since the birth of historical-critical scholarship in the 18th century, many theories have been proposed regarding the historical location and the political function of the texts in the Jacob cycle. Wellhausen wrote in his famous Prolegomena from 1883: “However, we cannot gain any historical knowledge about the Patriarchs here [sc. in Gen 12-50], but only about the time, in which the stories about them came to be among the Israelite people. This later period is being projected in the dim and distant past and is mirrored there like a mirage.” (J. Wellhausen, Prolegomena zur Geschichte Israels, Berlin: G. Reimer, 1883, 336). However, his approach was subsequently rejected. In the beginning of the 20th century, Gunkel’s form-critical method gained prominence. Behind the book of Genesis he claimed to discover individual “tales” that reached back into the 2nd Millennium BCE (H. Gunkel, Genesis. 6th ed., HKAT I/1, Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1964). Only in the wake of Gunkel could W. F. Albright later write: “[A]s a whole, the picture in Genesis is historical, and there is no reason to doubt the general accuracy of the biographical details” (W. F. Albright, The Biblical Period from Abraham to Ezra, New York: Harper and Row, 1963, 5). Albright ended up diametrically opposed to Wellhausen by following Gunkel. , whose approach prevailed in biblical studies until the 1970s, when groundbreaking books by T. Thompson and J. Van Seters (who concluded that the patriarchal narratives have more narratival than historical shapes) plotted the return to the safe historical ground so that Wellhausen’s approach again received proper recognition.

Evaluating the historical realities behind the Jacob cycle requires two steps. The first consists of investigating the Priestly version of the Jacob cycle, usually found in Gen 25:19-20, 26b; 26:34-35; 27:46-28:9; 31:17-18; 33:18*; 35:(6?) 9-15, 22b-29. The two elements that receive considerable attention in P’s Jacob cycle—Bethel and intermarriage—show that P is mainly interested in cult and family issues. This seems to agree with the historical location of its authors, presumably under Persian rule.

The second step focuses on the non-Priestly Jacob texts. Here it is important to maintain that the bulk of the non-Priestly material in Gen 25-35 is indeed pre-Priestly. One common characteristic of the material is its Northern orientation. The main locations of the Jacob story, Bethel, Penuel, Shechem, and Mahanaim point to the North. Furthermore, the most explicit allusion to the Jacob texts outside of the Pentateuch appears in the book of the northern prophet Hosea. In addition, the Jacob material is orientated towards Bethel, which functioned as a working sanctuary before the downfall of the Northern Kingdom (I. Finkelstein / L. Singer-Avitz, “Reevaluating Bethel,” ZDPV 125, 2009, 33-48). Bethel’s centrality to the overall structure of the Jacob cycle indicates that the core substance of the Jacob cycle can be dated before 720 BCE.

As Jacob stands for Israel and Edom for Esau, the political orientation of the material is clearly discernable. As E. Blum (Komposition der Vätergeschichte, WMANT 57; Neukirchen-Vluyn: Neukirchener, 1984]) shows convincingly, this political dimension of the Jacob story belongs to its earliest literary layer. Nevertheless, the narrative flow is not just a linear representation of corresponding political events: the cycle develops its own narrative world (e.g. Gen 33:1-11). But the Jacob cycle is not only about Jacob and Esau, it is also about Jacob and Laban, identified as an Aramean. It is noteworthy that when Esau is in the picture, Laban is not, and vice versa. This supports the assumption that the Jacob cycle is built up out of two formerly independent traditions, the Jacob-Laban story and the Jacob-Esau one.

This project will address new insights about Israel and Aram—both in terms of the material culture and settlement patterns in Transjordan. Also, the prominence of Esau/Edom in the Jacob cycle raises a series of serious questions in historical terms. First and foremost, it is striking that a non-neighboring nation like Edom is so closely relationship to Israel that Esau appears as Jacob’s twin brother, especially in light of the disparaging passages against Edom elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible (cf. Isa 34:5-6; Jer 49:17-22; Obad 1, 8-9, 19,21; Mal 1:2-3). Recent scholarship, in light of the findings of Kuntillet Ajrud, has stressed the close connections between the North and Edom, which opens up the field for new inquiries into the historical background of Gen 25-35.

A2: The Joseph Story and its Material and Cultural Context

The Joseph story at the end of the book of Genesis (Gen 37-50) has often been recognized as a literary work of its own. However, during the reign of the Documentary Hypothesis, it was common to distinguish Yahwistic (J) and Elohistic (E) strata also in these chapters, so that the original narrative would have been written, like all the other J-texts in the 10th or 9th century BCE. Biblical scholars often underline the sapiential flair of the narrative and view it as an instruction for young court officers. Some Egyptologists (e.g. J. Vergote) even conclude that the story reflects the historical context of the second half of the 2nd Millennium BCE, arguing that the author knew precise details of New Kingdom Egypt.

The abandonment of the Documentary Hypothesis (at least in Europe and partially in Israel), has re-opened the question of the date of the Joseph novella. Different dates were proposed (summarized in C. Paap, Die Josephsgeschichte Genesis 37-50. Bestimmungen ihrer literarischen Gattung in der zweiten Hälfte des 20. Jahrhunderts, EHS.T 534, Frankfurt: Lang, 1995)—ranging from the 9th to the 4th centuries BCE. Egyptologist D. Redford’s influential study (A Study of the Biblical Story of Joseph (Genesis 37-50), SVT 20, Leiden: Brill, 1970) concluded that most names and customs mentioned in the Joseph story fit better within the situation of “Late Egypt,” especially the Saite period. From a biblical point of view, outside the Hexateuch (Exod 1; 6-8; and Josh 24) the only other allusions to the Joseph story appears in the very late Psalm 105, which presupposes the Pentateuch almost in its “final” form. This alone may already indicate a quite late date, and most European scholars accept this conclusion. The question remains, however, whether the so-called Priestly source was familiar with the Joseph story (K. Schmid, “Die Josephsgeschichte im Pentateuch,” in J. Gertz, K. Schmid, and M. Witte, eds., Abschied vom Jahwisten, BZAW 315, Berlin: de Gruyter, 2002, 83-118) or whether the narrative was integrated later, meaning that P constructed the link between Genesis and Exodus only by narrating the descent of Jacob’s family to Egypt. Several scholars currently argue that the Joseph narrative should be considered a “diaspora novella” (A. Catastini, “Ancora sulla datazione della "Storia di Guiseppe"”, Henoch 20, 1998, 208-24; J.-M. Husser, “L'histoire de Joseph,” in M. Quesnel and P. Gruson, eds., La Bible et sa culture. Ancien Testament, Paris: Desclée Debrouwer, 2000, 112-22). As already observed by A. Meinhold (“Die Gattung der Josephsgeschichte und des Estherbuches. Diasporanovelle I, II,” ZAW 87, 88, 1975-1976, 306-24; 72-93), the Joseph story contains striking parallels with the book of Esther and the first part of Daniel (Dan 1-6), texts easily dated to the Persian or later periods. In B. J. Diebner’s view, the Joseph novella came into existence as a kind of midrash inserted into Genesis in an attempt to pay heed also to the Egyptian Diaspora alongside the Mesopotamian one (B. J. Diebner, “Le roman de Joseph, ou Israël en Egypte. Un midrash post-exilique de la Tora,” in O. Abel and F. Smyth, eds., Le livre de traverse. De l’exegésè biblique à l’anthropologie, Paris: Cerf, 1992, 55-71). One could also argue that the Joseph story existed first as an independent diaspora novella that was only later interpolated into the book of Genesis as a connecting link between the narratives about the patriarchs and the exodus epic. Biblical research indeed provides a number of observations that could confirm such a late date. Besides the absence of the figure of Joseph in the rest of the Hebrew Bible, one may add the quite “modern” theological perspective. Like the Masoretic edition of the book of Esther, the Joseph story (with the exception of a few verses in Gen 39—in all likelihood redactional additions) never uses the divine name Yhwh, and the narrator never comments about the divine intentions. Such comments instead only appear in the mouth of the protagonists (Joseph, his brothers, Jacob, etc.). The Joseph narrative shows that Israelites can live in Egypt: Pharaoh is presented very positively, and Joseph, having received an Egyptian name from Pharaoh, marries Asenath, thus becoming the son-in-law of an Egyptian priest. The author of the story focuses on Joseph’s career as an Egyptian official—he becomes second only to the king (like Daniel and Mordechai). It is therefore plausible that the Joseph story reflects the aspirations of a “liberal” Egyptian Diaspora.

The archaeology of Egypt has advanced tremendously with regard to research on the Saite and later periods (H. P. Colburn, The Archaeology of the Achaemenid Rule in Egypt, PhD dissertation, University of Michigan, 2014). While earlier research tended to condense all post New Kingdom remains in a single layer of “Late Period” finds that could not be attributed to specific periods, current research has succeeded in isolating Achaemenid levels in the pottery of both Upper and Lower Egypt. Archaeology is therefore ready to assume a bigger role in reconstructing the history of Achaemenid Egypt and in adjudicating its possible links to biblical texts.

As a result, this subproject will begin by checking and updating Redford’s investigation. Then the different Egyptian names, customs and localization that are mentioned in Gen 37-50 will be investigated in regard to their possible material, historical, sociological and literary background.