[b-hebrew] Joseph's Age and Dreams in Chapter 37 of Genesis

JimStinehart at aol.com JimStinehart at aol.com
Fri Dec 14 09:39:51 EST 2007


Rev. Bryant J. Williams III:
 
I agree with most of your fine, insightful analysis of Joseph’s interaction 
with his family members in chapter 37 of Genesis.  But as we will see, your 
fine analysis only works if Joseph is age 8½ regular years at the beginning of 
chapter 37 (being stated age 17 “years”, in terms of 6-month “years”).  If 
Joseph were age 17 regular years, and Simeon and Levi were about age 23 regular 
years, your fine analysis would not work.
 
1.  You wrote:  “[Y]ou still cling to the notion that the ages represent 
half-years which the Hebrew text does not support.”
 
As I showed in a post a few weeks ago, 23 out of 23 ages in the Patriarchal 
narratives make perfect sense if all ages are stated in the text in terms of a 
6-month “year”, and 0 out of 23 ages make sense if all ages are stated in 
terms of a regular, 12-month year.  For example, here at the beginning of chapter 
37 of Genesis, there is no way that the narrator would call Joseph a “nar”/“
boy”/ “lad” if Joseph were a full-grown adult man in the ancient world, age 
17 regular years.  Such terminology only fits a boy, such as young Joseph here, 
who is age 8½ regular years.  (A servant, even if older, could be called a “
nar”, but here Joseph is his father’s favorite son, not a servant.)  Like a 
normal 8½-year-old boy, and unlike any 17-year-old man who was not a virtual 
simpleton, Joseph tattles on his older half-brothers.  All of Jacob’s actions in 
chapter 37 of Genesis make perfect sense for an 8½-year-old boy, but would not 
make sense for a 17-year-old adult man.
 
2.  You wrote:  “Jacob still favors Joseph. It is quite reasonable to see 
Jacob having
 Joseph staying around him when he sends the rest of the kids up to Shechem.”
 
(a)    When you use the word “kids” here, it seems to me that, effectively, 
you are adopting my viewpoint and accurately seeing Jacob’s oldest three sons 
as being ages 15, 13 and 13, respectively, in regular years.  Whereas on the 
traditional view of the case, if Joseph had been age 17 in regular years at the 
beginning of this sequence, then Reuben, Simeon and Levi would be in their 
mid-20s, they would be married, and they would have children of their own, none 
of which is the case here.  Certainly if Simeon and Levi were age 23 regular 
years or so in the ancient world, you would not be referring to them as “kids”
, would you?
 
(b)    One of the most exciting things about this sequence is that it only 
makes sense if the bloody Shechem incident has not occurred yet.  If the bloody 
Shechem incident had already occurred, there is no way that Jacob would “send 
the rest of the kids up to Shechem”.  If people would realize that key point, 
they would begin to see what is going on here.  In order to see ordinary 
chronological order, chapter 37 would need to be re-numbered as chapter 33½.
 
3.  You wrote:  “It is also quite reasonable for Joseph, being seventeen 
years of age and a teenager to boot, to report his dreams to the brothers.”
 
(a)  That in fact is not reasonable at all, in the secular historical 
context.  In the ancient world, a male age 17 regular years was a grown adult man, 
and was not a “teenager” in our sense of that English word.  If you were age 17 
regular years, and a grown adult man in the ancient world, would you call 
your 10 older half-brothers together to tell them your dream that 11 stars bowed 
down to you?  Joseph cannot possibly be that naïve, if not stupid, at age 17 
regular years.  Rather, Joseph is reporting with gee whiz excitement a dream of 
a 9-year-old boy.
 
(b)  The heart and soul of this b-Hebrew list is analyzing specific Biblical 
Hebrew language.  Consider in that regard the fine scholarly comments of 
Professor Robert Alter, who shows how the very language the text uses at Genesis 
37: 7 reflects how very young Joseph was at this time:
 
“…Joseph reports the first of his dreams to his brothers in the following 
manner:  ‘And, look, we were binding sheaves in the field, and, look, my sheaf 
arose and actually (wegam) stood up, and, look, your sheaves drew round and 
bowed to my sheaf.’  The language here is surely crafted mimetically to capture 
the gee-gosh wonderment of this naïve adolescent who blithely assumes his 
brothers will share his sense of amazement at his dream.  …[H]ere Joseph repeats 
the term…hineh (‘look’)…three times in one breathless sentence, and the effect 
of naïve astonishment is equally expressed in his redundant ‘arose and 
actually stood up’….  The point is that the adolescent Joseph speaking to his 
brothers does not at all sound like the adult Joseph addressing Pharaoh….”  “
Genesis”, at p. xxxiv
 
If Prof. Alter’s word “adolescent” here were changed to “mere boy”, the 
foregoing would then be a perfect analysis of the situation here.  In the ancient 
world, no intelligent male age 17 regular years would be that naïve.  No way.
 
4.  You wrote:  “It is also quite reasonable for the response of the brothers 
to be quite
 upset (hatred) about what the dreams portended.”
 
What an understatement.  If Joseph were age 17 or 18 regular years, smart 
Joseph would surely have known what an adverse reaction his brothers would have 
to those controversial dreams, and so Joseph would not have forced his dreams 
upon his older half-brothers.  Everything in this sequence makes sense only if 
Joseph is about age 9 regular years. 
 
5.  You wrote:  “Teenagers at any age and any era are bound to have their 
good, mature moments and their bad, immature moments. This was both.”
 
Who are you talking about there?  If you have adopted my view of the ages 
here, then your comments fit the actions of Simeon and Levi beautifully:  they 
are hotheaded teenagers, age 13 regular years.
 
But if Joseph were age 17 regular years (the traditional view), then Simeon 
and Levi would be in their mid-20s, and would not be “teenagers…having…their 
bad immature moments”.  You are here making my arguments better than I seem to 
make them myself.
 
6.  You wrote:  “Each incident in this tale of woe is shown to indicate the 
character of each person.  Joseph is shown in a good light.  The brothers, and 
Jacob, is shown in a
 negative light.”
 
If Joseph were age 17 regular years, this “tale of woe” would not show 
Joseph in a good light.  Why would a grown man in the ancient world, age 17 regular 
years, be so dumb as to twice tell his older half-brothers dreams which 
appeared to say that Joseph would soon rule over his older half-brothers?  Would 
that show good judgment and intelligence on Joseph’s part?  In fact, Joseph 
looks good here only once we realize that Joseph is a mere boy, being between ages 
8½ and 9½ in regular years in chapter 37 of Genesis.
 
 7.  The only way the storyline in chapter 37 of Genesis makes sense is as 
follows.  Joseph is age 8½ regular years at the beginning of chapter 37.  The 
bloody Shechem incident has not taken place yet.  Joseph’s mother, Rachel, is 
still alive, and is obviously pregnant with Benjamin.  Leah has just now died, 
so that the family needs to go down south to Hebron for a few days to bury Leah 
at Hebron, where the first two Matriarchs have been buried.
 
On that reading, everything about chapter 37 of Genesis makes perfect sense.
 
In a way, I agree with most of what you say.  It’s just that what you say 
makes good sense only if Joseph is age 8½ in regular years at the beginning of 
chapter 37 of Genesis.  Given that key fact, then virtually all the rest of your 
perceptive comments about Joseph’s interactions with his older half-brothers 
are right on the money.  
 
So many stories in the Patriarchal narratives are like that.  Once you 
understand everyone’s actual ages, in regular years, these great stories make 
complete sense.
 
Jim Stinehart
Evanston, Illinois




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