Robert Alter opens his book, The Art of Biblical Narrative (winner of the National Jewish Book Award for Jewish Thought), with a fascinating analysis of a small vignette that for most of us appears to interrupt the larger story of Joseph.
He takes the Hebrew texts of the Jewish bible and subjects them to the kind of critical analysis one might apply to Shakespeare or Proust. He tries to show, on the whole with success, that the astonishing literary effects often achieved by the Authors of the Bible are the results of art and not of artlessness. — J. M. Cameron, New York Review of Books, cover blurb.
So here we are, reading the book of Genesis and enjoying its familiar series of tales, and nearing the climactic final chapters we come to the story of Joseph. Joseph the young lad is given his famous coat of many colours; he’s then sold by his jealous brothers into slavery. But then just as we want to know what happens next we are diverted by a seedy chapter that has given us the word “onanism”. The chapter goes on to relate the patriarch Judah’s misdeeds, his daughter-in-law acting as a prostitute and the birth of his grandchildren. We then return to the Joseph drama with Joseph being taken to Egypt as a slave where he is purchased by Potiphar.
Why did the Genesis author break the Joseph story like that? (Or for those who are more discriminating with their sources, Why did the author of the J document break up the Joseph story like this?)
Robert Alter begins with the few verses preceding the Onan and Judah story. I have used much of Alter’s translation because he maintains the Hebrew word order and meanings that are significant for his argument.
Joseph’s brothers sold him into slavery then stained his tunic in goat’s blood to deceive their father.
32 They had the ornamented tunic, and they bring it to their father, and say, `This have we found; recognize, we pray thee, whether it [is] thy son‘s coat or not?’
33 And he recognized it, and saith, `My son’s tunic!
an evil beast hath devoured him;
torn — torn is Joseph!’
34 And Jacob rendeth his raiment, and putteth sackcloth on his loins, and becometh a mourner for his son many days,
35 and all his sons and all his daughters rise to comfort him, and he refuseth to comfort himself, and saith, `For — I go downunto my son, to Sheol, mourning,’
and his father weepeth for him36 and the Medanites sold him
unto Egypt, to Potiphar, a courtier of Pharaoh, his chief steward . . .
This post continues from the previous one about John the Baptist’s parents. It’s a sharing of my reading of John Shelby Spong’s Liberating the Gospels: Reading the Bible with Jewish Eyes . . .. I covered in that earlier post the rationale for searching the Old Testament scriptures for an understanding of the Gospel author’s choices of names and narrative episodes.
Spong begins his discussion of Joseph by reminding readers how “shadowy” he is in the Scriptures. Much legend has accrued around him since the Gospels were written, but the New Testament has very little to say about him at all.
The earliest Christian evidence
Neither he nor Mary appears at all in Paul’s writings.
At the very least, we can state that to the degree that Paul represented Christianity in the fifth, sixth, and seventh decades of this common era, there was no interest in Jesus’ origins or his parentage at that stage in the development of the Christian story.
. . . Paul’s writing gives us no indication that he had ever heard of or had any interest in the miraculous birth traditions. (p. 202)
Spong emphasizes the indications in Paul’s letters that Paul thought Jesus’ birth was quite normal. He points to Galatians 4:4 (“born of a woman”) and Romans 1:3 (from David “according to the flesh”). Others have noted, however, that one does not naturally refer to anyone’s birth as being “of a woman” or “according to flesh”! I would expect to get strange looks if in any conversation I managed to explain that I or anyone present was “born of a woman”! That such apparently obvious truisms are made explicit does raise questions about the intent of such phrases in Paul’s letters. But I’ll continue here with Spong’s explanation.
This post concludes the series outlining key aspects of Levenson’s argument that the Christian narrative of the atoning and saving death and resurrection of the Beloved (Only) Son was borrowed from late Second Temple Jewish midrashic interpretations of their scriptures about Isaac, Joseph and others. While the cosmic significance of this event is attributed to Jewish apocalyptic, the story itself is a natural evolution or mutation of a Jewish idea that had been on the burner for some time.
Levenson concludes by drawing the two Beloved Son narratives together, and then showing the Christian counterpart in a similar Jewish parable. Rather than seeing Christianity as a “child” born of the “parent” of Judaism, Levenson concludes that it is more accurate to see the two religions originating as sibling rivals, each competing for their father’s unique blessing.
The Isaac christology
Among tales of the beloved son in Genesis, the aqedah (“binding of Isaac”) is unique. The father, Abraham, directly and deliberately brings about the symbolic death of his favoured son.
We can refer to the attributes of Jesus that derive from this narrative and its Second Temple era interpretations as an Isaac christology. The action hinges on the pious intention of the father, and later, on the godly willingness to be a sacrifice on the part of the beloved son.
The other beloved son narratives
In other cases (Abel, Ishmael, Jacob and Joseph) these die or nearly die from homicidal intent of their older brothers (or mother). In the cases of Jacob and Joseph the drama concludes with a reconciliation of the beloved son with those who sought to murder him (Esau, the other sons of Jacob). This reconciliation is an implicit or explicit acknowledgment that the plots of the would-be killers, like Abraham’s willingness to kill Isaac, were part of divine plan for good.
The Joseph christology
We can refer to the attributes of Jesus that derive from this narrative as a Joseph christology. That is, the event turns on the malignancy of the slayers. Both father and son are unwitting pawns in a divine drama. But the one difference with early christology is that there was no reconciliation with those who turned against and betrayed the beloved son. One of the earliest examples of this is seen in the parable of the wicked husbandmen.
Parable of the Wicked Husbandmen
Even though this parable appears towards the end of the synoptic gospels, it is a central parable to inform the reader about the fate and function of Jesus Christ, and the plan of God. It is tied tothe opening baptismal scene of Jesus, and again to the central episode of his transfiguration, but the focus on “the beloved son“. So when the beloved son appears again in this parable, it is in the context of the baptized and transfigured Jesus about to claim his true inheritance:
Then He began to speak to them in parables: “A man planted a vineyard and set a hedge around it, dug a place for the wine vat and built a tower. And he leased it to vinedressers and went into a far country. Now at vintage-time he sent a servant to the vinedressers, that he might receive some of the fruit of the vineyard from the vinedressers. And they took him and beat him and sent him away empty-handed. Again he sent them another servant, and at him they threw stones, wounded him in the head, and sent him away shamefully treated. And again he sent another, and him they killed; and many others, beating some and killing some.
Therefore still having one son, his beloved, he also sent him to them last, saying, ‘They will respect my son.’ But those vinedressers said among themselves, ‘This is the heir. Come, let us kill him, and the inheritance will be ours.’ So they took him and killed him and cast him out of the vineyard.
“Therefore what will the owner of the vineyard do? He will come and destroy the vinedressers, and give the vineyard to others. Have you not even read this Scripture:
The stone which the builders rejected
Has become the chief cornerstone.
This was the LORD’s doing,
And it is marvelous in our eyes?
And they sought to lay hands on Him, but feared the multitude, for they knew He had spoken the parable against them. So they left Him and went away.
Mark 12:1-12; Matt. 21:36-46; Luke 20:9-19
This parable is born out of key narrative themes in the Jewish scriptures and has firmly stamped those themes on the role and function of Jesus Christ. Note the following:
The theme of supersessionism (excluding possibility of reconciliation), as is central to the stories under the heading of the “Joseph christology” outlined above. The chief characteristics of this are:
The hostility of those who have been on the fields for the longer time towards the beloved son,
and their intent to murder him so that they can take his inheritance for themselves,
but the reversal of all they hoped for when they are the ones who are totally removed and replaced by the beloved son.
Complete reliance on the scriptures of the superseded Jewish people for this story; the irony of the claim that the Jewish people have been replaced by the Church jusxtaposed against the founding of this claim on the scriptures of those same Jewish people.under the heading of the “Joseph christology” outlined above.
The parable is clearly a development of the parable of the vineyard in Isaiah 5:1-7
Now let me sing to my Well-beloved
A song of my Beloved regarding His vineyard:
My Well-beloved has a vineyard
On a very fruitful hill.
He dug it up and cleared out its stones,
And planted it with the choicest vine.
He built a tower in its midst,
And also made a winepress in it;
So He expected it to bring forth good grapes,
But it brought forth wild grapes.
“And now, O inhabitants of Jerusalem and men of Judah,
Judge, please, between Me and My vineyard.
What more could have been done to My vineyard
That I have not done in it?
Why then, when I expected it to bring forth good grapes,
Did it bring forth wild grapes? And now, please let Me tell you what I will do to My vineyard:
I will take away its hedge, and it shall be burned;
And break down its wall, and it shall be trampled down.
I will lay it waste;
It shall not be pruned or dug,
But there shall come up briers and thorns.
I will also command the clouds
That they rain no rain on it.”
For the vineyard of the LORD of hosts is the house of Israel,
And the men of Judah are His pleasant plant.
He looked for justice, but behold, oppression;
For righteousness, but behold, a cry for help.
While this Jewish parable found fault with the vineyard itself, the Christian adaptation has found fault instead with the tenants. These refuse the rightful payment to the owner and murder his messengers.
One of the Jewish scriptural themes that has been embraced here by the parable is the traditional tale of the Jews killing the prophets sent to them (Nehemiah 9:26):
But they became disobedient and rebelled against You,
And cast Your law behind their backs And killed Your prophets who had admonished them
So that they might return to You,
And they committed great blasphemies.
Another prominent Jewish scriptural narrative theme is the motive for murder being the coveting of the inheritance. This is found in another parable, in 2 Samuel 14:4-11, as told by the wise woman of Tekoa:
Now when the woman of Tekoa spoke to the king, she fell on her face to the ground and prostrated herself and said, “Help, O king.”
The king said to her, “What is your trouble?”
And she answered, “Truly I am a widow, for my husband is dead. Your maidservant hadtwo sons, but the two of them struggled together in the field, and there was no one to separate them, so one struck the other and killed him. Now behold, the whole family has risen against your maidservant, and they say, `Hand over the one who struck his brother, that we may put him to death for the life of his brother whom he killed, and destroy the heir also.’ Thus they will extinguish my coal which is left, so as to leave my husband neither name nor remnant on the face of the earth.”
Then the king said to the woman, “Go to your house, and I will give orders concerning you.”
The woman of Tekoa said to the king, “O my lord, the king, the iniquity is on me and my father’s house, but the king and his throne are guiltless.”
So the king said, “Whoever speaks to you, bring him to me, and he will not touch you anymore.”
Then she said, “Please let the king remember the LORD your God, so that the avenger of blood will not continue to destroy, otherwise they will destroy my son.”
And he said, “As the LORD lives, not one hair of your son shall fall to the ground.”
It is the clan or family who wishes to kill the surviving son, so the reader can assume that their motive is not entirely one of disinterested justice. They are the ones who will assume the inheritance by acting so heartlessly against the mother.
This parable also cannot help but remind one of the struggle in the field between Cain and Abel (Genesis 4:8):
Cain told Abel his brother. And it came about when they werein the field, that Cain rose up against Abel his brother and killed him.
But in particular the parable of the wise woman of Tekoa’s parable reverberates with the sounds of Sarah’s insistence that the elder step-brother of her son be expelled (even into the face of death in the desert) so that her son alone could be secured the inheritance:
Therefore she said to Abraham, “Drive out this maid and her son, for the son of this maid shall not be an heir with my son Isaac.” (Genesis 21:10)
The same themes of
are at the heart of the well known story ofJacob and Esau. The extended narrative of Genesis 25-32 is told to justify the lateborn son, Jacob, assuming the privileges of the older, Esau. The whole narrative turns on the love that the mother, and God, have towards Jacob, the younger, and the conflict this generates with the older brother, Esau, who is loved by Isaac (Gen.25:28; Mal. 1:3). The consequence is, again, the intent by the older son, Esau, to murder the younger, Jacob, for the inheritance.
Paul’s contribution again
This parabolic midrashic slant of the old Jewish narratives was not the unique intellectual property of synoptic authors. Paul’s epistle to the Galatians contains a passage in the same midrashic tradition of the very same narrative cluster.:
Now we, brethren, as Isaac was, are the children of promise. But as then he that was born after the flesh persecuted him that was born after the Spirit, even so it is now. Nevertheless what saith the scripture? Cast out the bondwoman and her son: for the son of the bondwoman shall not be heir with the son of the freewoman. So then, brethren, we are not children of the bondwoman, but of the free. (Galatians 4:28-31)
Just as the Hebrew scripture’s narrative functioned to justify the inheritance going to the younger son over the older son of Abraham, so the midrashic play on the same narrative validated the claim of the Church over the Jews as the rightful heirs of God.
The author of that passage in Galatians had the same objective as the author of the original narrative of Isaac and Ishmael.
And the Christians are brought into this drama because of the earlier identification of the promise to Abraham with Jesus:
Now to Abraham and his seed were the promises made. He saith not, And to seeds, as of many; but as of one, And to thy seed, which is Christ. (Gal.3:16)
Christian anti-semitism witnesses to midrashic character of Christian message
The early Church claimed to be the chosen of God in place of the Jews, and asserted that God had dispossessed the Jews in favour of the devotees of Jesus Christ. If the Christians portrayed the Jews as their persecutors, the same Christians also saw it as their God-given right to cast out and dispossess the Jews. And the same Church concocted the written testimony to their claim out of their own midrashic interpretation of the Jewish scriptures.
The very efforts of the Church to dispossess the Jews of the Torah witnesses to the midrashic character of the most basic elements of the Christian message.
Paul’s and the Gospel’s message compared
According to Levenson, Paul never blames the Jews for death of Jesus. For Paul, the death of Jesus is always the consequence of the sacrifice of a loving God.
The parable of WIcked Husbandmen, though, has no trace of any notion of child sacrifice. Rather, it resembles the story of Joseph, whose father has no intention that his son be killed. Note also that the gospels have Judas as the wicked betrayer of Jesus, the beloved son and true heir, just as Judah was the betrayer of Joseph, the beloved son. That Judas might stand in for the Jews cannot be far from any reader’s mind. Levenson comments:
The father’s gift has been recast as the brothers’ crime. (p.230)
A Rabbinic analogy to Christian supersessionism: both replace Isaac
Levenson continues, p.230: “If doubt remains about the midrashic character of the Parable of the Wicked Husbandmen or its pronounced participation in the intertextuality of the Jewish Scriptures, the following rabbinic midrash should help dispel the doubt and shed light on the Jewish-Christian debate to which the parable bears witness:”
For the LORD’S portion is his people” [Deut 32:9]. A parable: A king had a field which he leased to tenants. When the tenants began to steal from it, he took it away from them and leased it to their children. When the children began to act worse than their fathers, he took it away from them and gave it to (the original tenants’) grandchildren. When these too became worse than their predecessors, a son was born to him. He then said to the grandchildren, “Leave my property. You may not remain therein. Give me back my portion, so that I may repossess it.” Thus also, When our father Abraham came into the world, unworthy (descendants) issued from him, Ishmael and all of Keturah’s children. When Isaac came into the world, unworthy (descendants) issued from him, Esau and all the princes of Edom, and they became worse than their predecessors. When Jacob came into the world, he did not produce unworthy (descendants), rather all his children were worthy, as it is said, “Jacob was a mild man who stayed in camp” [Gen 25:27]. When did God repossess His portion? Beginning with Jacob, as it is said, “For the LORD’S portion is His people / Jacob His own allotment” [Deut 32:9], and, “For the LORD has chosen Jacob for Himself [Ps 135 :4] (Sifre Deut. 312)
According to Levenson, in both the gospel parable and in this rabbinic midrash,
the climactic act of election is the final one, the one occasioned by the arrival of the son. In both passages, the point is to justify the preference for the latecomers at the expense of those whom they dispossess, the non-Israelite descendants of Abraham in the case of the midrash, the Jews in the Christian parable as we have interpreted it.” (p.231)
That rabbinic culture transmitted a parable on these matters so similar to the Synoptic text and its alloforms in Thomassuggests that the prominence of the “beloved son” in the canonical Gospels — or at least of the concept underlying it — is not incidental to the meaning of the Gospel passage. Rather, both texts would seem to have had their origins in the dispute of Jews and early Christians over the identity of the beloved son and the community that harks back to him.The only way in which a dispute of this sort could be carried on was through the exegesis of the only scripture either community knew — the Hebrew Bible.
Paul had replaced Isaac as the beloved son with Jesus and the Church, and this rabbinic midrash replaces Isaac with Jacob and the Jews as the beloved son.
The biblical texts on which the two contending groups focused are, in each case, those that speak of the origins of the faithful community and the legitimation of its separation from its unworthy competitor, and, in each case, the legitimation derives from God’s new and definitive act of election. (p.231)
This rabbinic midrash testifies to the “deeply Jewish character of the parallel New Testament exegetical moves and for the similarity of the ways in which the two communities laid a midrashic claim to the patrimony of Abraham.”
Both Jewish and Christian communities rely on Genesis; both use Genesis to compose texts that completely dispossess their rivals. In both the Jewish and Christian parables the former tenants are totally uprooted and repudiated — there is no compromise, no longer any room for any blessing at all for the former tenants.
The break is total: contrary to what biblical archetype might have suggested, the Jews and the Church are not even related . . . .
The Jewish-Christian relationship is thus not one of parent-child as often portrayed, but one of two rival siblings competing for their father’s unique blessing.
I’ve done nothing more in these posts than present some key parts of Levenson’s argument. I have not discussed it in relation to other studies or possible implications for certain other hypotheses for Christian origins. In future posts, however, I do expect to refer back to significant points made by Levenson in this book, bringing them to throw additional light on other interpretations of the origins of Christianity.
The primary purpose of this series in the meantime is to do my little bit towards making more widely accessible some of the biblical scholarship that rarely gets read beyond the study rooms of academia.
There’s much more in the book — especially in relation to early Canaanite sacrifice and the notion of human sacrifice (both literal and symbolic) in what are sometimes thought of as “early bible times”.