[b-hebrew] Robert Alter on Joseph

JimStinehart at aol.com JimStinehart at aol.com
Fri Jul 24 17:47:12 EDT 2009


James Christian:
 
You wrote:  “Jim, by that reasoning the UK has several new years. It has 
one on January  1st from pagan origins. It has one in September when kids go 
back to  
 school. It has one in April when the financial year starts. And  
 others. Does that mean I should divide at least by three each time a  
 Brit tells me his age?”
 
No.  Nor is that my reasoning.
 
1.  The term “year” is ambiguous in the U.K. and the U.S., out of context. 
 If you ask a schoolchild in the summer what classes he or she will take “
next year”, you probably mean the 9-month period September to May, rather 
than meaning the 12-month period beginning the following January.  Yet out of 
context, the phrase “next year” would normally mean the 12-month period 
beginning the following January.
 
2.  Consider this real life example.  My boss’s daughter, a teenager, told 
me that she had only had 4 birthdays.  I thought it was some kind of a 
strange joke.  It turned out that she is very proud of having been born on 
February 29, so that she only has a real birthday during a leap year.  The context 
meant everything.
 
3.  The Hebrews count people’s ages based on how many relevant New Years 
have transpired since the person’s birth.  I am well aware that, out of 
context, we would normally assume that a Hebrew’s age is being set forth in terms 
of how many fall New Years have passed since the person’s birth, 
disregarding spring New Years entirely.  But I think you see the potential ambiguity 
there.  Moses (though any historical Moses long post-dates any historical 
Patriarchal Age) said that the first month of the year shall be in the spring.  
How can we be so certain, out of context, that all spring New Years will 
always be ignored for purposes of setting forth a Hebrew’s age?
 
 
4.  So the only logical way to proceed here is to consider the context.  We 
all start by looking at the Patriarchs’ ages on the initial assumption that 
they are being set forth in terms of how many fall New Years have 
transpired since the Patriarch’s birth, ignoring spring New Years.  But that first 
guess turns out to make no historical sense whatsoever.  Why would Abraham’s 
father Terakh be portrayed as living to age 205 years, in 12-month years?
 
So we should try a second way.  Since rural Canaan likely observed two New 
Years every 12 months, one in the fall and one in the spring, why not ask if 
perhaps, uniquely, the Hebrew author of the Patriarchal narratives daringly 
decided to increase each person’s age at  e-v-e-r-y  New Year, including 
not only fall New Years, but also spring New Years?  What do we have to lose 
by asking that question?
 
If that theory of the case is wrong, then since we have 22 stated ages of 
people in the text, one would certainly think that many of those stated ages 
would make no sense at all if they are un-doubled.  Many people would be way 
too young, after their stated ages were erroneously un-doubled.  Yet 22 of 
such 22 stated ages make perfect sense if they are un-doubled.  And 
virtually no stated age in the text makes historical sense (in a Late Bronze Age 
historical context) if it is not un-doubled.
 
So the proof of the pudding is in the eating.  Context determines all.  
Check out my theory, and see what each person’s age would be on my theory of 
the case.  Don’t forget that periods of years in Harran and Egypt (but not any 
ages of people) are set forth in 12-month years in the text, on my view of 
the case.
 
Just check it out.  What do you have to lose?  If my theory of the case is 
wrong, surely there should be some horrible inconsistencies in the text when 
read that way.
 
But if, on the contrary, all 40 ages and periods of years in the text make 
perfect sense, on all levels, on that theory of the case, then that theory 
of the case makes a heck of a lot more sense than the scholarly theory of the 
case, which is as follows:
 
(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.
  
 Why passively accept the scholarly view of the ages of the Patriarchs, 
which holds that no such ages make sense on any level, and that there are 
super-obvious “mistakes” in the text regarding chronological matters that prove 
that there were multiple authors of the Patriarchal narratives, with 
entirely inadequate editing?
 
A lot is on the line here.
 
Jim Stinehart
Evanston, Illinois

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