A Tale of Twelve Brothers
The story of Jacob’s twelve sons begins with their birth in Genesis 29, continues with the birth of Benjamin, and finally ends at the conclusion of the book of Genesis. Taken as a whole, it is one of the longest literary units in the entire Bible.
From the point of view of genre, it has been called a novel, a novella, a novelette, it has been categorized as wisdom literature, as a critique on human relationships, as political criticism, and even as Heilsgeschichte salvation history). It is certainly one of the best-known stories in the Bible, made even more popular by the 1970’s Tim Rice/Andrew Lloyd Webber musical Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.
Reuben Versus Judah in the Leadership Role
One of the main themes of the story is the struggle for dominance: first between Jacob and his brother Esau, then between Jacob’s wives Leah and Rachel, and finally between Jacob’s sons. His eldest is Reuben, which, in the patriarchal society of the Ancient Near East would make him the natural heir. Inheritance rights of the first-born, known as “primogeniture,” בְּכוֹרָה in Hebrew, are encoded in Deut 21:15-17.
Leadership comes with responsibility, and indeed, we do find Reuben playing the role of “elder brother” when he tries to save Joseph from his jealous brothers (Gen. 37:21-22). Later on, he also tries to convince Jacob to send Benjamin to Egypt with his brothers in order to free Simeon, who had been taken hostage by “the man who is lord of the land,” the as-yet unrevealed Joseph (42:37).
Over time, however, Reuben is marginalized by two other brothers, Judah and Joseph. Joseph, we are told, was Jacob’s favorite son because “he was the son of his old age”; his haughty behavior towards his brothers becomes a central theme of the story.
Judah’s leadership first appears when, after Reuben, he talks his brothers into selling Joseph instead of killing him / leaving him in the pit to die. Then again, following Reuben’s failure convince Jacob (here called “Israel”) to send Benjamin with them to Egypt, it is Judah who steps in successfully (43:1-10). Finally, it is Judah who leads his brothers back to Joseph to plead for Benjamin (44:14-17), leading up to his long speech (44:18-34). By this time, Reuben is no longer a factor in the story; it has become a struggle between Judah and Joseph, over the fate of “young” Benjamin.
Modern Critical Views of the Story
This story has received more than its share of treatment by modern scholars. Some of these have subjected the story to the standard “source-critical analysis,” attributing different sections to the postulated Pentateuchal documents. Although this approach has its benefits, knowing that the story likely developed from a combination of sources and redactions does not obviate the need to try and understand the final form of the text as we have it, i.e., to view the story as a whole and to analyze its themes and structure.
Historians of biblical Israel have long ago given up on placing the Patriarchs within the known history of pre-Israelite (that is, Bronze Age) Canaan. The Patriarchs are depicted as tent-dwelling nomadic shepherds, who are never said to have built anything (except a few altars here and there), and are never said to have written anything. There is little in the whole of Genesis 12-50 that can be tied to a particular historical period.
So while the Torah narrative offers much geographical information about where they lived, we do not know when they lived – or even, critically speaking, if they lived at all as historical individuals. For the purposes of historical analysis, it seems more useful to treat them as “representative figures,” literary characters who are meant to represent their “descendants.”
Many scholars have attempted to ascertain the Joseph story’s historical background and its historicity (which are not the same thing!). Some have considered the knowledge of the Egyptian court and economy displayed by the writer to be proof of the story’s basic historicity, others have maintained that there are not enough details to substantiate such a claim. As a historian of ancient Israel, my primary academic interest in this story is not to try and establish its historicity but to gather what historical information may be gleaned from it.
One basic premise that scholars work with, is that while particular biblical narratives as we know them likely had a long composition history, we do not know when any particular narrative, or the Torah as a whole, crystallized. Modern scholarship offers many different hypotheses about the composition-history of the Pentateuch, with no widely-held consensus. But we can try to analyze the historical situation that the author seems to have had in mind, and try to fit it into our historical reconstruction.
Twelve Tribes Represented by Twelve Brothers
Our story sees the nation of Israel as being made up of twelve tribes, represented here by twelve “brothers” who are all descended from a common “father,” called both Jacob and Israel. Although the story is told about a family, the characters in the story are meant to be the eponymous ancestors of tribes; they are not just “people” but representative figures. In the final form of the story, Reuben, the first-born and natural (and perhaps legal) leader, has been marginalized. An explanation of sorts is given in Jacob’s “blessing” in Gen 49:3-4:
בראשית מט:ג רְאוּבֵן בְּכֹרִי אַתָּה כֹּחִי וְרֵאשִׁית אוֹנִי יֶתֶר שְׂאֵת וְיֶתֶר עָז. מט:ד פַּחַז כַּמַּיִם אַל תּוֹתַר כִּי עָלִיתָ מִשְׁכְּבֵי אָבִיךָ אָז חִלַּלְתָּ יְצוּעִי עָלָה.
Gen 49:3 Reuben, you are my firstborn, my might and the first fruits of my vigor, excelling in rank and excelling in power. 49:4 Unstable as water, you shall no longer excel because you went up onto your father’s bed; then you defiled it – you went up onto my couch.
This likely refers to the short notice in Gen 35:22 about Reuben’s “laying” with Bilhah, Jacob’s concubine.
Historically, the tribe of Reuben settled in the deserts of southern Transjordan, and, although apparently once a powerful and important tribe, by the time the story of Jacob cursing Reuben was developed, it was marginal, and apparently did not play an important role in the later history of Israel.
The two tribes that were important in the history of Israel were Judah and Joseph. Within the Patriarchal narrative, they are the sons of Jacob’s two rival chief wives, Leah and Rachel. Geographically, the territory of Judah was surrounded by that of his three full older brothers: Reuben to the east, Simeon to the south and Levi within. This area—with the exception of Reuben which, like the other Transjordanian tribes, was incorporated into the Northern Kingdom of Israel—became the nucleus of the kingdom of Judah. The Joseph tribes, represented by his “sons” Ephraim and Manasseh and joined by his “half-brothers,” made up the nucleus of the northern kingdom of Israel. The rivalry between the two brothers well represents the rivalry of what eventually became the two kingdoms of Israel and Judah.
Benjaminites: Caught in Between Two Kingdoms
Benjamin plays a significant role within this saga and these kingdoms. In Genesis, Benjamin is Rachel’s second son, Joseph’s full brother. This “brotherhood” is evident elsewhere in the Torah, e.g. in the description of the Israelites’ camp in the wilderness (Num. 2:18-24), in which Ephraim, Manasseh and Benjamin encamp under a common banner. In 2 Sam. 2, Ish-Boshet (Eshbaal) the Benjaminite Saul’s son is made king over “all Israel,” including Benjamin, but not Judah. In 1 Kings 4:7-19, the Judahite Solomon’s twelve-district division of “Israel” includes Benjamin, but not Judah. However, after the death of Solomon, when the northern tribes rebelled against his son and formed the kingdom of Israel, Benjamin, for some reason, stood with Rehoboam king of Judah (1 Kings 12:21), and remained so until the very end of the monarchy.
The territory of Benjamin, however, remained an area of conflict between the two kingdoms for generations. Bethel and Ophrah, both towns of Benjamin, remained within the northern kingdom. 1 Kings 15:17-22 tells of an outright war between the two kingdoms over this very area. This state of affairs must have affected the people living in the area, some of whom would have naturally felt a greater loyalty to their northern brethren than to the Judahites.
However, in the end, those parts of Benjamin that remained within the kingdom of Judah were spared the Assyrian exile, and remained part of what became the Jewish People. In my analysis, at least one layer of the Joseph story is aimed at addressing this situation: in Genesis, it is Joseph who is arrogant, becomes more powerful, and actually imprisons Benjamin, although admittedly, not out of malice. It is Judah who rescues him, thus showing himself to be the true leader of the brothers. This would be a powerful reminder for the people of Benjamin, on just how wise they had been to remain within the kingdom of Judah, rather than to side with apostate Israel, which had been snuffed out by the Assyrians.
Similar Conclusions But From a Different Point of View
The Midrash Tanchuma says of Abraham’s arrival at Shechem:
סימן נתן לו הקב”ה לאברהם שכל מה שאירע לו אירע לבניו.
The Holy One gave Abraham a sign, that everything that happened to him would happen to his descendants.
This was further developed by Nachmanides (on Gen 12:6):
אומר לך כלל תבין אותו, בכל הפרשיות הבאות בעניין אברהם יצחק ויעקב, והוא עניין גדול הזכירוהו רבותינו בדרך קצרה, ואמרו כל מה שאירע לאבות סימן לבנים.
I will tell you the rule to understand in all of the stories about Abraham, Isaac and Jacob… all that happened to the fathers is a sign for their sons.
In other words, the Rabbis realized that many of the stories that the Torah tells about the Patriarchs do indeed reflect the later history of the nation of Israel. Modern scholarship has come to a similar conclusion, seen, however, from a different point of view. For the Rabbis, these events happened twice, once with the Patriarchs, and again later, with their descendants.
Modern scholars use the same evidence of similarities that the rabbis and Nachmanides saw, but as their premises and purposes are different, so are their conclusions. They do not take Genesis as history, but believe that later events that were important to the authors of Genesis were pre-told symbolically in Genesis meant to convey messages to readers in later generations.
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December 14, 2014
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Prof. Yigal Levin is associate professor at the Israel and Golda Koschitzky Department of Jewish History at Bar-Ilan University. He received his Ph.D. in Land of Israel Studies from Bar Ilan University. Specializing in historical geography and in biblical genealogies, Levin is the author of The Chronicles of the Kings of Judah: 2 Chronicles 10-36 and co-editor of War and Peace in Jewish Tradition from Biblical Times to the Present.
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