[b-hebrew] Robert Alter on Joseph

JimStinehart at aol.com JimStinehart at aol.com
Fri Jul 24 10:04:42 EDT 2009

The term “adolescence” may be a misnomer in the ancient world.
Consider the title of the 1991 scholarly work below, and a brief portion of 
a scholarly review of this work, which can be seen here:  
_http://www.jstor.org/pss/205281_ (http://www.jstor.org/pss/205281)   Although the specific 
focus is on the Greco-Roman world, the book examines young people in the 
ancient world generally.
“‘Ancient Youth:  The Ambiguity of Youth and the Absence of Adolescence in 
Greco-Roman Society.’  By Marc Kleijwegt (Amsterdam, J.C. Gieben, 1991) 417 
pp. fl 130
‘Ancient Youth’:  the title is both pun and program.  Kleijwegt’s subject 
is the young men of preindustrial societies, especially in the cities of the 
Hellenistic-Roman world;  his theme, that among the elite, at least, the 
young were described in much the same terms as mature adults and were expected 
to perform adult tasks….”
Since the Hebrew language of Genesis 37: 7 expresses, in Prof. Robert Alter’
s phrase, Joseph’s “gee-gosh wonderment” at his dream, that means that 
Joseph is not yet a young man (age 13 regular years or older), but rather 
Joseph is still a “boy”/N(R [Genesis 37: 2].  Joseph has witnessed 17 or 18 New 
Years -- counting both fall New Years  a-n-d  spring New Years -- at the 
time Joseph breathlessly recounts that dream to his older half-brothers.   
Accordingly, Joseph is age 9 regular years, in 12-month years, when Joseph tells 
his older half-brothers that controversial dream with “gee-gosh wonderment”
Prof. Alter is one of the leading experts on the nuances of the language of 
Biblical Hebrew.  On the other hand, Prof. Alter has relatively little 
interest or expertise in the secular history of the ancient world.  So what we 
can count on from Prof. Alter is what the nuances of the Biblical Hebrew 
wording are, not an apt historical analysis of the concept of “adolescence” in 
the ancient world.  
The Biblical Hebrew wording of Genesis 37: 7, as analyzed by Prof. Alter, 
is perfect for a 9-year-old boy excitedly and naively reporting his dream.  
No 17-year-old man as smart as Joseph would do such a dumb thing, practically 
inviting his adult, older half-brothers to take some definitive 
counter-action against him.  No way.  The story is senseless if it is woodenly insisted 
that at the beginning of chapter 37 of Genesis, Joseph had witnessed 17 
fall New Years.  Rather, Joseph is only age 8½ years, in 12-month years, at the 
beginning of chapter 37 of Genesis.  Joseph had witnessed a total of 17 New 
Years, counting both fall New Years and spring New Years.  
As to including spring New Years in setting forth Joseph’s age, in addition 
to the fall New Years that were fundamental to beloved Canaan (where the 
fall rains renewed plant life in Canaan), remember that Joseph was born in 
Harran, in northwest Mesopotamia.  Joseph did not leave Harran until he was age 
7 regular years.  Also, Joseph’s father, Jacob, was at Harran beginning at 
age 27 regular years, and Jacob did not leave Harran until 20 regular years 
later, at age 47 regular years (when Joseph was age 7 regular years).  (Jacob
’s age in 12- month years of 47 upon leaving Harran is neatly reprised when 
Jacob dies at stated age 147 “years”, in 6-month “years”, per Genesis 47: 
28, set forth, appropriately, in chapter 47.)  Harran celebrated only a 
spring New Year, not a fall New Year, so it makes sense to include spring New 
Years in setting forth Joseph’s stated age in chapter 37 of Genesis.
Joseph is not an adolescent in chapter 37 of Genesis, much less a grown man 
(in the ancient world) at age 17 years in 12-month years.  No, Joseph is a “
boy”/N(R.  Joseph is age 8½ regular years at the beginning of chapter 37 of 
Genesis, and Joseph acts like an 8½-year-old boy, tattling on his older 
half-brothers (by minor wives) to their father (second sentence of Genesis 37: 
2).  The Patriarchal narratives have pinpoint accuracy as to all ages, all 
of which are always reasonable, in the historical context of the Bronze Age. 
Jim Stinehart
Evanston, Illinois

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