Thursday, May 15, 2008

The figure of Joseph in the Hebrew Text and the Targums: A figure of wisdom?

Student No: 421005532

The figure of Joseph in the Hebrew Text and the Targums: A figure of wisdom?


The story of Joseph in Genesis has intrigued and inspired many throughout history. Its distinct narrative has been explored in both the secular and religious worlds. The greatness of its popularity can probably be attributed to the universality of its major themes; familial breakdown and restoration, the triumph of the underdog, and the underlying divine order of an otherwise chaotic world. Indeed;

"Joseph's steadfastness in the face of temptation, his filial love for his father, his loyalty, to his family, and his conduct in high office became favourite object lessons in rabbinic homiletics."


Nevertheless, interestingly, it is one of the parts of the Hebrew Bible that is almost completely secular, which has lead some to consider it to be similar to that other tale of Diaspora life in the Hebrew Bible, the book of Esther. Others have seen its focus on humanity as evidence of it being Wisdom literature, concerned with human life. However, Roland E. Murphey writes in his entry 'Wisdom in the OT' in the Anchor Bible Dictionary that;

"It is an exaggeration to affirm that the Joseph narrative is a…wisdom story."


He is arguing here against the work of Gerhard Von Rad, who proposed, in The Problem of the Hexateuch, that the Joseph narrative was clearly a part of the canon of Ancient Israelite wisdom literature. However, Murphey's view is shared by other scholars such as Richard Crenshaw and Martin Fox. This essay will explore exactly how far the figure of Joseph in the Hebrew text could be considered wisdom literature and examine further the arguments against such an idea. It will then go on to compare the figure of Joseph in the Hebrew text with the figure of Joseph in the Aramaic Targums. As the Targums were written as a type of exegesis during a period of intense scholarship, this study intends to examine whether these origins change the portrayal of the figure of Joseph in the Aramaic text in reflection of its nature of creation. It will specifically focus on whether any possible Wisdom elements of the text are reinforced in the Targum interpretation, and why this might be.

    The Joseph story is unusual within the Hebrew Bible, and particularly within Genesis. On the surface, it would to appear to fit within the pattern of the narrative of the patriarchs, explaining how the Israelites came to be slaves in Egypt. The story fills the gap between the patriarchal stories with the promise of a land, and the wilderness narratives when the people have escaped from slavery in Egypt. Even so, a closer reading brings to light that the Joseph story becomes "a story within a story"; an individual political story of Joseph worked within the wider story of the family of Jacob. Von Rad, Westermann and George W. Coats see signs of a distinct united source behind the Joseph narrative. They posit that it is the work of a single author, with a very few redactions. Few would argue with this idea today. Westermann goes on to comment on the ideas of Von Rad and Gunkel that this can be seen in the arrangement of the narrative into separate scenes, each with its own exposition, climax and resolution. If indeed the narrative did develop separately, it is important to consider how this might have happened. In Joshua 24:4 it states, "Jacob and his children went down into Egypt." It has been suggested that the Joseph narrative developed from this assertion with Von Rad and Gunkel seeing parallels in structure to the court history of David, and thus also suggesting that it could not be written before the period of the early monarchy in Israel. D.B. Redford goes as far as to label the Joseph narrative a work of fiction. If this line of thought is followed, it is not hard to see the authors of the Bible using a convenient work of fiction to stop the gap between the patriarchal and the exodus narratives. Whether one agrees with Redford's labelling of the Joseph narrative as fiction, he does raise some important points about it. It is not overly concerned with recounting Gods promises or covenants like the earlier patriarchal narratives. As previously mentioned, the influence of the divine is referred to only in passing. Each occasion it is mentioned serves to drive the plot along such as when Joseph labels the advances of Potiphar's wife a sin in Genesis 39 or in Genesis 41 when the brothers attribute to God's punishment the appearance of the silver in their sacks after visiting Joseph.

    Nevertheless, the self-contained narrative of the Joseph story and its depiction psychological events lead Von Rad to consider it more than a simple explanation added to the Genesis patriarchal narratives. To him, the structural differences and the distinct "anthropological" factor of the narrative render it Wisdom literature.

    Westermann asks;


"But how can the Joseph story be a short story and at the same time belong to the wisdom teaching?"


In order to examine how much of the Joseph narrative could be considered "Wisdom literature", it would be wise to consider the definitions of such a label given by the scholars on each side of the debate.


"Wisdom predicated on a belief in the orderly governance of the world by God."



Murphey views Wisdom literature as literature that urged the Israelites to work in a certain way, the way of life that leads to prosperity and a relationship with the Lord. In particular, Wisdom literature aims to aid character formation. In a similar way, Von Rad defines it as a text "in search of the rational rule, or reflecting on that rule", examining the world around the Hebrew man for reliable order, with reward for mastering the way. With this in mind, the Joseph narrative does appear to contain elements of Wisdom literature, particularly when contrasted with the earlier Jacob narratives.


"Where as God explodes into the narrative world of the Jacob story, the Joseph story has no such interventions in the earliest material. Instead, it is characterised by an abiding divine order to which all of its characters must conform."


This abiding divine order could certainly be equated with the order that other Ancient Israelite wisdom literature encourages the Israelites to live within.

Chapter 38 and 39 appear to contain elements of a "Wisdom" mentality. In Genesis 38, the story of Judah and Tamar, which seems to disrupt the narrative flow of the main Joseph tale, could be viewed as an author emphasising the importance of levirate marriage. Whilst forbidden in Leviticus 18:16, and 20:21 as a general rule, Deuteronomy 25:5 renders it an obligation when there is no male offspring from the original marriage. This reading of the Tamar/ Judah story also fits with Murphey's ideas on Wisdom literature aiming to encourage good moral character formation in its readers, dissuading them from shirking their duties. Moreover, the wider Joseph narrative contrasts the character of Judah against the character of Joseph. Joseph's resistance to temptation when being seduced by Potiphar's wife in Genesis 39 is in direct contrast to Judah's incest with Tamar, with Joseph being ultimately portrayed as much greater than his brother. There are also parallels between the exchanges of Joseph and Potiphar's wife and the warning against seductive women in Proverbs 7, which also reinforces the link between the Joseph narrative and Wisdom literature. The Egyptian setting of the Joseph story brings another interesting element to the idea of it containing rudiments of Wisdom literature. Within the Ancient Egyptian tradition, there is the well documented "Tale of the Two Brothers" which has a similar anthropological emphasis on the human characters and sustained narrative force. Here a younger brother resists the advances of his elder brother's wife, who then lies and accuses the younger brother of attacking her. The older brother wishes to kill the younger brother, but the younger brother flees, having been warned by message from a cow under his care. This too may well have served as a warning against the pleasures of the flesh to its readers. Similarly, one can see parallels also to the Egyptian tales of Neferkare and General Sisne, where a kingdom was brought down by moral depravity and the Eloquent Peasant, where the peasant, unjustly robbed by an official, succeeds in capturing the attention of the royal court through his natural eloquence. Whilst not quite Wisdom texts themselves, they show a prevalence of Wisdom in Egyptian society which may well have influenced the author of the Joseph story.

Further elements of Wisdom in the Joseph narrative arise when one considers the idea that Wisdom literature lives in the context of the royal court. If the wider corpus of Ancient Near Eastern wisdom literature is examined, it is clear that it is designed to not only form good moral character among its readers, but to also create a competent body of court administrators. This is certainly the case in the Joseph narrative that charts his rising from false accusations with his integrity intact, to gaining a position of trust in prison, before taking a high position in the Pharaoh's court. Coats remarks upon the similarities of Joseph's fate with that of the Egyptian Tale of Sinuhe, a story of an official who left his homeland voluntarily, and was met with hospitality upon his journey. His ideal relationships in foreign courts served as an example of a prosperous courtier and this model is carried back to his own people. Joseph could then be considered the perfect administrator for the Israelite scribes reading his story, who through his diligence and favoured status helps Egypt through famine. It is also necessary to consider the Wisdom of Ahiqar at this juncture. Known from a series of Semitic texts, it tells the story of a royal counsellor removed from his position and then restored, a theme present in other Mesopotamian literature and similar to the situation of Joseph being removed from a position of some power in Potiphar's house before being restored by the Pharaoh. Joseph gains his position through being outspoken and by providing good counsel, qualities that were insisted upon by the writers of Ancient Near Eastern Wisdom literature. This can be seen in the following examples;


"Do you see a man skilful in his work? He will stand before kings."

Proverbs 22:29


"Neglect not the discourse of the wise…For them thou shalt learn instruction and how to minister to great men"

Ben Sira 8:8


"If you are a tried counsellor who sits in the hall of his lord, gather your wits together right well. When you are silent, it will be better than tef - tef flowers. When you speak, you must know how to bring the master to a conclusion. The one who gives counsel is an accomplished man; to speak is harder than any labour."

Ptahotep 24 from H. Kees translation.


All three examples above lead to the idea to depiction of a man who acquires true nobility through his behaviour. Joseph also knew when to remain silent and when to speak, as in Genesis 43 and 44 where he tests his brothers. Murphey states that knowing when to give counsel as a sign of self control and thoughtfulness in Egyptian wisdom literature. This idea is corroborated by J.D. Ray who examines the Wisdom of Amenemope, a Wisdom text from 1250 - 1100 BCE concerned with the question of fate. This characterises two types of human behaviour, the silent man;


"…discerns divine purpose and accommodates himself into it. In such a way he avoids pitfalls in his life and is found pleasing to the gods. The other, the heated or rash man, is in conflict with external conditions and their dispensation but also, in the last resort, with himself. "


This could be applied to the contrast between the scenes with Judah and those with Joseph.

Finally, it is also important to recognise that the elements of dream interpretation in the narrative are also characteristics of a possible Wisdom strand as dream interpretation is one of the skills focused upon in other Wisdom literature.

    So far, this essay has considered how much of the Joseph narrative could be considered to contain elements of Wisdom literature. However, many academics have "dismissed the wisdom connections as unsustainable." Crenshaw argues that Von Rad's overall characterisation of wisdom literature as "practical knowledge of the laws of life and of the world, based on experience" or wisdom as an "approach to reality," "a firm belief in the validity of experience" will of course lead to the biblical scholar seeing wisdom type literature everywhere, and in the case of the Joseph narrative, somewhat erroneously. The humanistic focus of the Joseph story on the psychological nature of man is a far too "common concern" in ancient literature to be used to identify specifically Wisdom focused literature. This argument of prevalence can also be applied to the theme of the seductive woman. On the subject of Joseph being a perfect administrator, it can be argued that Joseph, rather than being a model for good practice for a courtier, is actually a rather poor example. He is frustrated by his family in Genesis 37, he negotiates in an apparently selfish manner for his father's blessing for his sons in Genesis 48: 17 – 22, and he neglects to control his emotions in Genesis 45 and 50. Moreover, Von Rad's idea of Joseph being an educational ideal is countered by the fact that as far as the Hebrew text is concerned, Joseph is illiterate and never receives a formal education. "Joseph's wisdom "is not something acquired, not the wisdom of the schools"." Claud Westermann explains the parts of a kind of courtly Wisdom in the texts as being a by-product of the Egyptian court setting, nothing more. Fox conducts a more expansive rebuttal of the idea of Joseph as Wisdom literature. On an ethical level, Joseph succeeds in spite of his sexual virtue, it having landed him in prison in a direct contrast to Wisdom literature's promise of lasting benefits for virtuous living. The Joseph narrative does not emphasise that Joseph's God favoured status as being due to his virtuous living, and gives the reader no idea as to how to achieve such status. In the same way, his skills of dream interpretation are attributed to God rather than his intellectual ability, and thus cannot be emulated; only viewed with awe.

    The rebuttal in recent scholarship of Von Rad's ideas on the Joseph story is so persuasive, that it would be foolish to hold it to be entirely Wisdom literature. Nevertheless, it is perhaps safe to continue with the idea that some of the story is derived from wisdom elements. It can certainly be said that the Joseph narrative has been utilised as an example of righteous living through the ages. In more modern times his success has come to be attributed to God, as an example of God's faithfulness to his people –


"The cycle of Joseph is a success story. Many ills befall him but everything turns out well in the long run because God is with him and a kindly providence sees to it that he overcomes every obstacle and rises in station."


However, in there has often been a rich tradition of exegesis written around the Hebrew texts that can be seen in the Talmud and in other traditional Jewish midrash on Genesis. These tend to emphasise the moral aspects of Joseph's character. For example, he is considered by the sages to have been on the edge of giving into temptation, making his resistance to Potiphar's wife all the more potent, as can be seen in Sot. 36b, Hor. 2:5, 46d and Genesis Rabbah 87:7; 98; 20.


The Aramaic Targums from the Late Antiquity period also include interesting traditions about Joseph in the inter-linear exegesis found in the different texts. Maren Ruth Niehoff outlines these in her extremely comprehensive article. Two main areas of interest to this study arise from her work. Firstly, the Targums view Joseph in an "overwhelmingly positive" light. Some of this is accomplished by adding a large religious component to the Hebrew text. He supposedly observed the law whilst in Egypt according the gloss in Targum Okemos on Genesis 49:24;

"And his prophecy was fulfilled for he observed the Law in secret and placed his trust in Divine power then gold was lifted on his arms, he took possession of a kingdom and became strong."


His observation of the law in this case would be refusing to commit adultery. This would appear to be the author of the Targums using the Wisdom elements of the Joseph narrative to reinforce a righteous way of living to its readers, in the Wisdom literature way of emphasising reward for such behaviour. It will become apparent that the authors of the Targums attempt to do this repeatedly in the Joseph narrative. Indeed, his chastity is praised by all the major variants of the Targums. Genesis 39:11 is given clarifying treatment by the Targum Neofiti, Pseudo – Jonathon and Onk. All three texts state that he had returned to Potiphar's house in order to "to check the accounts" thus showing his being in the house at the time of the attempted seduction to be totally innocent. Moreover, P.J. continues in Genesis 49:24 to extol his virtues; he resisted temptation, "thanks to the strict instruction he received from Jacob."

Joseph has been transformed into a "paradigmatic righteous man who controlled his evil inclinations" partly due to God and partly due to him following the wisdom of his father. Neo. also considers prosperity to be due to "his good work" in more depth in Genesis 39:2, and that Potiphar appointing Joseph as an "administrator" to his house in Genesis 39:5 caused it to be blessed "for the merit of Joseph." Again the additions support the idea that the Targums aimed to make an example of Joseph. Secondly, Targum Pseudo – Jonathon inserts the idea that Joseph was educated in Genesis 37:2. Niehoff translates his place of education as being the "Beit Midrash". Martin Maher uses "the school house". Nevertheless, the sense of a place of learning is inherent in both. This is of course, as Niehoff rightly points out, "patently anachronistic". The latter part of Genesis 37:2 also has Joseph reporting that his brothers were eating the flesh, ears and tail of a living animal, something forbidden by halakah. Both the over emphasis of Joseph's holiness and his education reflect something of the author's own time and traditions. A man of such great stands and favour in God's eyes had to have been especially virtuous, righteous and educated in the law. How else would he have found favour?

The placing of contemporary traditions in order to amplify the character of Joseph in the Targums can be largely attributed to the atmosphere in which they were written. The Targums arose from the need in Late Antiquity to translate the Hebrew Bible into Aramaic, the lingua franca of the time. Aramaic speaking Jew and non Jew alike would then be able to understand the scripture and law.


"Translation became a part of the attempt to make scripture meaningful in the present."


Targums developed as part of the development of the synagogue, with the relevant Torah portion being reviewed twice from the Hebrew text and once from a Targum. Since the emphasis was on having the congregation understand the weekly portion, the tendency to express meaning rather than be "scrupulously literal" was present from the very beginnings. As the Targums became a more established part of liturgy, rabbis tried to control the content of the translations in order to exert authority, in order to ensure that the congregation took away the right ideas about the weekly portion. The amplification of Joseph's moral character traits would fall into this category. In the same vein, Genesis 38 is treated in a very midrashic style with a heavenly voice in Genesis 38:25 declaring all of the events to have been part of God's plan;


"They are both just; from before the Lord the thing has come about."


This is most likely evidence of unease about an ancestor of the Jewish people committing incest, and to prevent the congregation from thinking about following Judah's lead. Other parts of the Targums were deemed so troublesome that they were not to be translated in public at all.

    Alongside public education in the synagogue, the Targums were also used to educate in a range of other settings. Anthony D. York proposes that a number of elements, especially within the Targum P.J., would lead us to believe that the Targums were used in schooling. It adds mentions of Beit Midrash to the lives of Jacob, Joseph and Moses, and it appoints the tribe of Issachar as teachers. Returning to the Joseph narrative, the inter–linear exegesis in P.J. can be at times rather salacious;


"And his erect organ returned to its previous condition so as not to have intercourse with his mistress and his hands were withheld from voluptuous thoughts and he suppressed his Yezer thanks to the strict instruction he received from Jacob."


If incest in the Joseph narrative is considered too taboo in the interpretation of Targum Neo. to be read out in the synagogue without the addition of considerable midrashic elements, it is hard to imagine the above being read out to the whole congregation. The same applies to Gen 39:1, where it mentions Potiphar buying Joseph in order to engage in homosexual acts. The rabbis were trying to present the character of Joseph as an example. So much so that the meturgeman of all three major Targum take pains to give good reasons for Joseph being in Potiphar's house at the time of the temptation to maintain his innocence. Associating him with homosexuality, another breach of the Law would be completely out of the character. P.J. also preserves contradictions in the Joseph narrative that would not be read out translated in the synagogue in order to prevent confusion, such as Genesis 37:32 and 38:25 which contradict each other over who takes Joseph's coat to Jacob and Genesis 45:4 and 45:12 which use circumcision versus speaking Hebrew as the proof of Joseph's identity to his brothers. This sort of detail in the Joseph narrative alongside inclusion of other midrashic and extra biblical material means it is possible to hypothesise that the P.J. translation was never meant to be read aloud. Rather it was following in the example of the Wisdom elements in the Hebrew texts, and trying to educate its scholarly target audience by including as much relevant material as possible.

    The exact nature of the Joseph narrative has been the subject of intense discussion over the years. Its unusual setting in the Diaspora and the very nearly completely secular rendering in the Hebrew text, alongside interesting parallels to other narratives prevalent in the corpus of Egyptian, Hebrew and Assyrian Wisdom literature, have lead some to believe it is a separate later piece of Wisdom literature added to Genesis. However, as this study aims to prove, it is far more likely that the Joseph story contains elements of Wisdom that have been carried down the Judaic tradition. Specifically, the Aramaic Targums in their treatment of Joseph amplify the character's goodness and virtue. However there are two shifts in emphasis. Firstly, there is a shift from the secular to the divine, as Joseph's successes are attributed to God. Secondly, rather than using Joseph to exemplify an administrative ideal as in the Hebrew Text, they use the character and his narrative to reinforce moral and educational values. Both of these changes are a reflection of the intellectual climate of production. Nevertheless the ethos of using the Joseph narrative to educate remains in the Targums - it being used both in the synagogue and in private study - and it has interesting ramifications for the type of material included or excluded in each case. The authors of the Targums used the Wisdom elements in the Joseph narrative to propagate the ideals of their time. Finally, a further reaching study could perhaps consider further links between the Hebrew text and the Targums' interpretation of the Joseph narrative through exploring the relationship between the different intellectual climates of each era of production. It would also be interesting to explore other ways in which the Targums alter the Hebrew text in order to protect the integrity of the Patriarchs as examples to synagogue congregations.







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