I realize that, on a certain level, the style I’ve been adopting may be a little tedious. After all, I’m sorta recounting every story and not leaving out many details. Plus, I'm telling them in the order they appear rather than trying to group them into coherent narratives. And since the stories themselves are often tedious, poorly written, and/or nonsensical, some of that is going to bleed into recounting and commenting on them. But the reason I’m doing it is that the Sunday School version of the Bible story most of us get leaves so much out as to be almost entirely divorced from the actual text. So it’s a matter of giving context, and bringing out the details that ministers prefer to (for lack of a better word) hide when asking us to accept the Bible.
So that’s a little bit of what I’m thinking, and why you readers are being subjected to every single story I come across as I read. If it works for you, then by all means keep reading! If it doesn’t, comment and let me know if you’d prefer a different style.
Now back to the Bible. Today we start one of the most famous and well-loved stories of the Old Testament – possibly because it’s one of the very few in which someone behaves like a decent human being and is rewarded for it.
Israel (formerly Jacob) is now settled in Canaan once again with his 12 sons. One of them, Joseph, is his favorite, and Israel gave him a robe of many colors. Now, the Bible says he’s his favorite “because he was the child of his old age,” which seems inaccurate to me. Joseph was the first child born to him by Rachel. The last child whose birth was recorded (and therefore who best qualifies as “child of his old age”) was Benjamin, who Rachel died giving birth to. But maybe it’s just meant to suggest that when Israel was an old man, Joseph was the son who still hung around to help him out.
Anyhow, since Israel is apparently sufficiently unsubtle about Joseph being his favorite that all his other sons are aware of it (and since Joseph has a history of “making a bad report of them” – aka tattling), Joseph’s brothers are not his biggest fans. It doesn’t get any better when, at seventeen, he tells them about a dream he had in which they were all collecting sheaves of wheat, and all their sheaves came and bowed down to his (“Ha ha ha! Someday you’ll all be my bitches!”). Then he steps it up a notch with a dream in which the sun and moon and eleven stars all bowed before him (“Not only you, but mom and dad too!”). Young Joseph was kind of a brat.
A little while later the boys are out pasturing the flock near Shechem (remember that city where they killed all the men and stole all their livestock, women and children, then ran away for fear the neighbors might give them shit for it? Guess they’re feeling kind of ballsy after having gotten away with it). Isaac wants to know what they’re up to, so he sends his little favorite to go snitch on them. When Joseph arrives, he hears that his brothers aren’t there, but in some other town called Dothan.
When Joseph finally catches up with them, they decide that the way to deal with their snotty little bro is to kill him and dump him in a pit. Fine bunch of young men, aren’t they? But the oldest, Reuben, managed to convince them it would be better to leave him in a pit to die of exposure rather than just kill him, since somehow that would mean that his blood wasn’t really on their hands (apparently logic wasn’t a strong suit with them either). Though apparently Reuben’s real intent was to wait for his brothers to go away, then rescue Joseph when they weren’t looking. So good on him.
He didn’t get the chance, though. While the brothers were having lunch, they saw a caravan of Ishmaelites heading by. And Judah convinced the others that as long as they were getting rid of Joseph, they might as well get some profit out of it. So they sold him to the Ishmaelites as a slave, who in turn took him to Egypt and sold him to the captain of the Pharoah’s guard. The brothers then took Joseph’s pretty multicolored robe, slashed it up and spilled a goat’s blood on it, and gave it to Isaac with the story that Joseph had been killed and eaten by a wild animal. Then we get Israel’s reaction:
“Gen 37:35 All his sons and all his daughters rose up to comfort him, but he refused to be comforted and said ‘No, I shall go down to Sheol to my son, mourning.’ Thus his father wept for him.”
Now, I hadn’t actually encountered the word “Sheol” before coming across it reading the Bible, but I had heard from my Jewish friends that they don’t actually believe in Hell. So I was curious what this was about, and decided to look it up. The grossly simplified version is that it is the Jewish version of the land of the dead, where all the dead go regardless of their state of morality, piety, etcetera. The dead wait there in silence, mere shadows of their living selves and in more or less the spiritual/emotional state they were in at the end of their lives. Sheol is physically located deep underground, at the furthest possible distance from God in his heaven.
This is kind of a far cry from the Hell of Christian imaginings with all of its tortures and burnings, but neither is it anything like the Christian Heaven. It’s a completely different (and somewhat unpleasant) conception of an afterlife that reminds me more of the Greek Hades. And I have to wonder why it isn’t mentioned at all in the creation account, since it seems that any given person will spend a damn sight more of their existence hanging out in Sheol than they will spend on earth. Most of the descriptions I found in looking it up made only the sketchiest of references to the Bible as source material, which sort of implies most of the ideas about it aren’t actually contained in the Bible. You’d think it would be worth describing.
Maybe it gets some attention later on, since it seems to me it would be a pretty huge oversight in describing Biblical cosmology to leave it without description.
So after the brothers give their little tale to Israel, the Bible goes off on a weird little aside and kind of ignores the Joseph story for a bit. It diverts to tell the story of his brother Judah, who soon after selling his brother into slavery married a Canaanite woman (we don’t get her name because she’s a woman, though her father was named Shua). With her, he had three sons: Er, Onan, and Shelah in that order. Er grew up to marry a woman named Tamar. Now, I’m gonna give you a long quote here because what happens to Er and Onan is pretty fucked up and the wording is important. And this is not a story they tell much in Sunday school – again, never heard about it until I tried reading the Bible.
“Gen 38:6 And Judah took a wife for Er his firstbaorn, and her name was Tamar. 7 But Er, Judah’s firstborn, was wicked in the sight of the Lord, and the Lord put him to death. 8 Then Judah said to Onan ‘Go into your brother’s wife and perform the duty of a brother-in-law to her, and raise up offspring for your brother’ 9 But Onan knew that the offspring would not be his. So whenever he went into his brother’s wife he would waste the semen on the ground so as not to give offspring to his brother. 10 And what he did was wicked in the sight of the Lord, and he put him to death also.”
That’s pretty fucked up, right? Aside from the irony of those Christians who want to ban books with graphic discussions of sex, I’m told that this passage is the Biblical basis for Christian proscriptions against masturbation.
Now… I know sex education is not a big Christian thing. So I’m going to share a little information that you may not have been exposed to: what was described in that passage was not masturbation. Onan was having sex with his brother’s widow, but pulling out before ejaculating in order to make sure she doesn’t get pregnant. He was doing this because, culturally, those children would have been considered his brother’s children, which would have entitled them to his brother’s (Er’s) portion of any inheritance from Judah. Whereas if Er had no heirs, that portion would belong to Onan. That was Onan’s crime – not spanking his monkey, but screwing his brother’s widow because he’s supposed to give his brother heirs, but deliberately refusing to impregnate her.
There’s been a lot of interesting research on masturbation in recent years. And that research pretty much concludes that it’s healthy and good. Aside from feeling pretty good, it’s associated with all kinds of medical and psychological benefits such as lowered stress, higher reported happiness, even lower prostate cancer rates. That’s right: it fucking prevents cancer and priests are demonizing it because they fail at reading comprehension! I mean, it would be a stupid prohibition even if the Bible actually said it, but this just means it’s doubly stupid.
By the way…in what way was Er wicked in God’s sight such that he deserved to die? Bible never says. Guess the author was too anxious to get to the coitus interruptus portion of the story to worry about giving credible explanations for what led to it.
Anyhow, to get back to the story. After Onan dies, Judah tells Tamar to go back to her father until his youngest son is old enough to give her Er’s babies. But since two of his sons have already died while married to her, Judah’s afraid to lose the third and so when Shelah grows up he doesn’t send him to fetch Tamar.
Sometime after Judah’s wife dies Tamar gets sick of waiting, so she disguises herself as a prostitute (by putting on a veil) and waits by the road where she knows Judah will be passing by. Judah sees her, and decides to hire her. They settle on a young goat as her payment, but since he doesn’t have one on him at the time he agrees to leave his signet ring, cord, and staff as collateral. So Judah does the deed with his daughter-in-law (thinking she’s a prostitute), and she gets pregnant. Later Judah sends a friend of his to deliver the goat to the “prostitute,” but of course she’s not there. And Judah decides not to pursue it because he’d be ashamed to be seen asking around and trying to track down a prostitute.
“Gen 38:24 About three months later Judah was told ‘Tamar your daughter-in-law has been immoral. Moreover, she is pregnant by immorality.’ And Judah said ‘Bring her out, and let her be burned.’”
Given that he’d sold his own brother into slavery, is it any real surprise that Judah is such a fucking hypocrite? Let her be burned? For having sex? From a guy who was out visiting prostitutes? Seriously?! And what kind of society does he live in where just some guy could give such an order and seriously expect it to be followed?
But anyhow, Tamar sent him the staff, signet, and cord he’d given her as collateral on the goat, with a note saying “I’m pregnant by the guy who owns this stuff. Recognize it?” Then he at least had the decency to realize he was a douche. But while he apparently let her live, nothing is ever said of him doing anything to make up for being such a jerk.
Tamar gave birth to twin boys. During the birth one of the babies reached out a hand first, and the midwife tied a scarlet thread around his hand to mark him as the firstborn, but then the hand drew back and the other twin was actually born first. I’m not sure if that’s medically possible – it’s not like the birth canal is a roomy place, and I’m fairly certain that once you’re far enough along to get a hand out into the air there’s no turning back.
Whew! Long post today! I hope it was at least interesting to read. Next one gets us back to the Joseph story.