[b-hebrew] Robert Alter on Joseph

JimStinehart at aol.com JimStinehart at aol.com
Fri Jul 24 16:32:49 EDT 2009

You wrote:  “Jim, At the risk of incurring the wrath of God, would you mind 
giving me a synopsis of your theory?” 
My pleasure.
1.  Calendars and New Years
The Hebrew way of setting forth a person’s age is to count the number of 
relevant New Years that have passed since the person’s birth.  Normally, for 
Hebrews living in Canaan, the only relevant New Year for this purpose would 
be the fall New Year.  The fall New Year is the most ancient and basic New 
Year in Canaan (long pre-dating Moses), because the fall rains in Canaan 
revive plant life in Canaan, and it’s a New Year in Canaan.  But the Patriarchal 
narratives are unique in this connection, because most of the main 
characters split their time between Mesopotamia (Ur or, especially, Harran), Canaan 
and Egypt.  Neither Harran nor Egypt knew a fall New Year.  So for someone 
like Joseph, who spends most of his life in Harran or Egypt, it’s not so 
obvious that Joseph’s age should be set forth on the basis of the number of fall 
New Years that have transpired since his birth (in Harran, a locale that did 
not know a fall New Year).
My new, controversial theory of the case is that the Hebrew author of the 
truly ancient Patriarchal narratives adopted the daring, unique gambit of 
increasing each person’s age at every New Year, including not only every fall 
New Year, but also every spring New Year as well.  The oldest calendars we 
know from greater Canaan are from Ugarit, where there was both a fall New Year 
and a spring New Year.  Likewise, many calendars from ancient Canaan proper 
have a fall New Year, and many have a spring New Year.  The Jewish calendar 
today has the first day of the New Year in the fall, but the first month of 
the New Year (per Moses) in the spring.  This type of calendar system is a 
natural fit for Canaan, which has two annual harvests of equal importance, 
spaced 6 months apart:  the harvest of fruits in the fall, and the harvest of 
grains in the spring.  Despite the presence of two New Years every 12 
months (at Ugarit, in Canaan, and also formerly at Ur), other authors increased a 
person’s age only at one New Year every 12 months.  The one and only thing 
different about stated ages in the Patriarchal narratives is that the Hebrew 
author daringly decided to increase everyone’s age at  e-v-e-r-y  New Year, 
including both fall New Years and spring New Years. 
However, although each person’s age in the Patriarchal narratives is 
always, without exception, set forth in terms of 6-month “years” (per the above), 
a different rule applies in the Patriarchal narratives for setting forth 
periods of years (but not a person’s age) in Harran or Egypt.  Since the 
locals in Harran and Egypt only knew a single New Year in any 12-month period 
(spring in Harran, early summer in Egypt), periods of years in those locales 
are set forth in the text in terms of 12-month years.
That is the “secret” of the ages of the Patriarchs.  The Hebrews knew that 
secret, of course, as did the Koran, and also the medieval Christian 
clerics who put chapter divisions and chapter numbers into the Bible.  That “secret
” has only been lost in modern times.  (This “secret” applies only to the 
Patriarchal narratives [beginning at Genesis 11: 26], which is the oldest 
part of the Bible, not to any of the rest of the Bible.)
2.  Proof of My Theory
The only way to tell whether my theory of the ages of the Patriarchs is 
right or wrong is to apply first the traditional (and scholarly) theory to the 
40 numbers in the text that are either ages or periods of years, and then 
instead try applying my theory.  The traditional/scholarly theory doesn’t work 
at all.  Abraham’s father Terakh cannot be age 205 years in 12-month years. 
 Genesis 11: 31  What sense would that make?  Jacob is not going to wait 
until he is in his 70s to get married, nor is Isaac going to wait until age 40 
in 12-month years to wed.  At age 16 regular years, Ishmael would not be 
carried into exile on his mother Hagar’s shoulder!  All of the stated ages in 
the text seem about twice as old as they should be.
But my theory works perfectly.  No one is too old to do what he or she is 
portrayed as doing.  And after un-doubling each stated age (to convert stated 
6-month “years” into regular, 12-month years), no one is too young.  When 
in Harran, Leah gives birth to 7 children in 7 years, with no twins.  That’s 
because those years are 12-month years in Harran.  Likewise, the 7 years of 
feast in Egypt are 12-month years, because the Nile River only flooded once 
every 12 months, so that is what determines a year in Egypt.
On my theory of the case, every single age in the Patriarchal narratives 
makes perfect sense on all levels.  The internal timeline of the Patriarchs is 
coherent to a fault.  And every single number also embodies appropriate, 
consistent numerical symbolism.  There is not a single mistake in the text of 
the Patriarchal narratives as to numbers.  Everything is perfect, as is.
Or you can go with the scholarly theory of the ages of the Patriarchs:
“The over-all chronological scheme [of the Patriarchal narratives] remains 
obscure."  E.A. Speiser, “Genesis” (1962), at p. 126.
The scholarly theory of the case is that (i) the ages of the Patriarchs 
make no sense on any level, and (ii) the alleged inconsistencies in the text as 
to people’s ages (and whether they are dead or not) are evidence of 
multiple authors and insufficient editing.  No way!  The traditional theory is that 
Abraham’s father Terakh actually lived to age 205 years, in regular years, 
and that Sarah actually gave birth to Isaac when Sarah was age 90 years, in 
12-month years.
On my theory of the case, by sharp contrast, every single age in the text, 
without exception, makes perfect sense, in a Late Bronze Age historical 
context, on all levels.  When Genesis 37: 2 says that Joseph was age 17 “years” 
when he tattled to his father Jacob about his older-half brothers (by minor 
wives), that means that Joseph had witnessed 17 total New Years, counting 
both fall New Years and spring New Years.  Joseph is being presented in the 
text as being a “boy”/N(R, age 8½ years, in 12-month years. 
That is my theory of the case.
Jim Stinehart
Evanston, Illinois

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