[b-hebrew] Genesis 41: 1: "Two Years of Days"

JimStinehart at aol.com JimStinehart at aol.com
Wed Jul 22 13:54:07 EDT 2009


Jay:
 
You wrote:  “Were such an approach deemed halakhically sound, 'years' would 
certainly deserve a double measure.”
 
Consider the Hebrew way for determining the age of a tree, in “years”.
 
If a tree is planted in Canaan in August, the tree is considered to be age 
1 “year” at only a month after it was planted, at the fall New Year.  For a 
tree planted in August, a 1-month-old tree is considered to be age 1 “year”
.
 
12 months later, at the next fall New Year, the 13-month-old tree is 
considered to be age 2 “years”.
 
12 months later, the 25-month-old tree is considered to be age 3 “years”.
 
Per Leviticus 19: 23-25, the fruit of a tree cannot be used until the tree 
is age 3 “years” old.  That does not mean that the tree must have been in 
existence at least 36 months since it was planted.  No, it means that the 
tree must have been in existence at three fall New Years.
 
In setting forth the age of a tree or of a human, the age in “years” is 
shorthand, for the Hebrews, for stating how many relevant New Years have 
passed since the tree or human came into existence.
 
For Hebrews who live in Canaan their entire lives, we would expect a Hebrew’
s age to increase by 1 “year” at the fall New Year, and only at the fall 
New Year.  But for the Patriarchs, it’s hard to decide which is or are the 
relevant New Year(s).  More stated ages are given for Joseph than any other 
person in the text except Abraham.  Joseph is only in beloved Canaan for 3½ 
regular years.  Joseph literally only witnesses 3 fall New Year celebrations.  
Joseph is born and spends his childhood in Harran, in northwest 
Mesopotamia, where the locals only celebrated a spring New Year.  Joseph spends his 
adulthood in Egypt, a locale where the only New Year was in early summer.  So 
can we be certain that in setting forth Joseph’s ages, the author of the 
Patriarchal narratives is referring exclusively to fall New Years?
 
Consider now the traditional view of Terakh, under which Terakh never is in 
Canaan.  In setting forth Terakh’s ages at the beginning of the Patriarchal 
narratives, can we be sure that the author of the Patriarchal narratives is 
counting Terakh’s age in terms of fall New Years, even though Terakh, on 
that view, never actually witnesses a single fall New Year celebration?  Now 
consider my own controversial view of Terakh, under which Terakh was 
indigenous to Canaan.  But Terakh spends the last three decades of his life in 
Harran, which only knew a spring New Year.  Can we be sure that Terakh’s age is 
being set forth exclusively in terms of fall New Years, even though for the 
last three decades of his life, Terakh witnessed no actual fall New Year 
celebrations?
 
Abraham, Sarah and Jacob likewise split their time between Mesopotamia, 
which had only a spring New Year, and Canaan, which prior to Moses celebrated a 
fall New Year.  12 of Jacob’s 13 named children are born in Harran.  How 
can we be certain that all of these people’s ages are being counted 
exclusively on the basis of how many fall New Years in Canaan have transpired?
 
The Patriarchal narratives present the unusual situation where most of the 
people for whom we are given stated ages split their time between 
Mesopotamia, Canaan and Egypt.  For people like that, we cannot be sure that their 
ages are being set forth exclusively in terms of how many fall New Years in 
Canaan have transpired.
 
Moreover, the Jewish calendar has two New Years.  The first day of the New 
Year is in the fall, but the first month of the New Year is in the spring.  
Having two New Years in Canaan feels fairly natural, because Canaan has two 
annual harvests of equal importance, spaced about 6 months apart:  the 
harvest of fruits in the fall, and the harvest of grains in the spring.
 
Jay, I presume you agree that when a Hebrew author sets forth a person’s 
age, that age in “years” is saying how many relevant New Years have 
transpired since the person’s birth.  The Hebrews never determined ages on the basis 
of how many complete 12-month periods had passed by since the person’s 
actual date of birth.  That’s the Protestant way, not the Hebrew way.  No, the 
Hebrews always determined the age of people and trees on the basis of how many 
relevant New Years have transpired.
 
In the Patriarchal narratives, it’s not easy to determine what the relevant 
New Years are.  The fall New Year is the most basic New Year in Canaan, 
because that’s when the fall rains cause plants to grow again in Canaan, and it’
s a New Year in Canaan.  But given the spring harvest of grains in Canaan, 
the spring New Year instituted by Moses (long after any historical 
Patriarchal Age) also feels right for Canaan.  Harran observed only a spring New 
Year, and many characters in the Patriarchal narratives spend time in Harran.  
Most of Jacob’s sons are born in Harran.
 
So what I am saying is that we should consider two different options that 
the Hebrew author of the Patriarchal narratives had for setting forth people’
s ages.  He could have increased each person’s age by one “year” at the 
fall New Year, and only at the fall New Year.  I admit that would be anyone’s 
first guess as to how ages are set forth in the Patriarchal narratives.  But 
then all people’s ages are exactly twice as old as they realistically should 
be.  Why would Terakh be thought to live to age 205 years, in 12-month 
years?  Accordingly, I am asking people to consider a second possibility:  that 
the Hebrew author of the Patriarchal narratives may have made the daring 
choice of increasing each person’s age by one “year” both at the fall New Year 
 a-n-d  at the spring New Year.  If we check out that possibility, we see 
that, like magic, every single age in the Patriarchal narratives now makes 
complete sense.  And as I noted in my first post on this thread, the author 
uses a different approach regarding periods of years (but not ages of people) 
when the Hebrews are in Harran or Egypt.  In those foreign locales, which 
had only one New Year every 12 months, the author presents periods of years in 
terms of 12-month years.
 
There’s no way that Abraham could sire Isaac at age 100 years, in 12-month 
years.  But it makes perfect sense for Abraham to be age 100 “years”, in 
6-month “years”, when Abraham sires Isaac.  Abraham had witnessed 100 New 
Years at the time when Isaac was born:  50 fall New Years, and 50 spring New 
Years.  In my view, that is what the Hebrew author of the Patriarchal 
narratives means when, at Genesis 21: 5, the text states that Abraham was age 100 “
years” when Isaac was born.  That is to say, Abraham was age 50 years, in 
12-month years, at Isaac’s birth. 
 
My theory of the case explains all 40 numbers in the Patriarchal narratives 
that are either a person’s age, or a period of years.  Or you can stick 
with the scholarly view:
 
(1)  "[P]rodigious life spans [are] attributed to the Patriarchs.”  John J. 
Collins, “Introduction to the Hebrew Bible” (2004), at p. 84.
 
(2)  "The actual chronological place of this event [Isaac's death, reported 
at Genesis 35: 28-29] is obviously considerably earlier in the narrative.  
The biblical writers observe no fixed commitment to linear chronology, a 
phenomenon recognized by the rabbis in the dictum, 'there is neither early nor 
late in the Torah'."  Robert Alter, “Genesis:  Translation and Commentary” 
(1996), footnote 29 at p. 201.
 
(3)  "The over-all chronological scheme [of the Patriarchal narratives] 
remains obscure."  E.A. Speiser, “Genesis” (1962), at p. 126.
 
(4)  "In fact, the episodic style of the narratives that recount the life 
of Abraham is only tenuously attached to a biological clock;  witness the 
ages in which Abraham and his spouse go through major moments of their lives.  
The same can be said of Isaac.  Rebekah herself is famously unattached to 
chronology…."  Jack M. Sasson, "The Servant's Tale:  How Rebekah Found a 
Spouse", Journal of Near Eastern Studies, January-October 2006, volume 65, at p. 
248.
 
Modern scholars’ misunderstanding of how the Hebrew author of the 
Patriarchal narratives presents people’s ages is one of the main reasons why today’s 
scholars erroneously view the Patriarchal narratives as being a “myth”.
 
Jim Stinehart
Evanston, Illinois
 

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