[b-hebrew] Robert Alter on Joseph

JimStinehart at aol.com JimStinehart at aol.com
Sat Jul 25 15:51:56 EDT 2009


Rev. Bryant J. Williams III: 
 
I would never impugn anyone's religious beliefs, whatever they may be.  It 
would have been fine if Karl had said that it is Karl’s religious belief 
that Terakh and Ishmael lived miraculously long lives by grace of God.  But 
Karl did not say that.  Here is what Karl said: 
 
“Is this history or not? If history, then this is evidence that for whatever


reason, people's lives have been getting shorter.”
 
If I understand the plain meaning of those words, Karl is asserting that 
people in general in the historical Bronze Age lived to much older ages than 
people do today:  “people’s lives have been getting shorter.”  But that is 
demonstrably false, in secular history, and hence it is an inappropriate 
assertion for the b-Hebrew list.
 
I have no problem whatsoever with people believing in religious miracles.  
And I myself see the Patriarchal Age as being historical.  But it is not 
proper on the b-Hebrew list to assert that people in general in the historical 
Bronze Age aged more slowly than people do today, and that “people’s lives 
have been getting shorter.”  We know that such is not the case in secular 
history.  People in the ancient world had shorter lifespans than today, on 
average (though occasionally some individuals in the Bronze Age would live to 
as old an age as old people do today, but not older than today’s oldest 
people).
 
If the historicity of the Patriarchal narratives depends upon the 
proposition that people in general in the historical Bronze Age aged more slowly than 
people do today, and that “people’s lives have been getting shorter”, then 
we’re sunk as to there being an historical Patriarchal Age.
 
Ishmael would not be carried into exile on his mother Hagar's shoulder if 
Ishmael were an adult male in the ancient world, age 16 years in 12-month 
years.  Joseph would not be called a N(R/“boy” by the narrator and tattle on 
his older half-brothers if Joseph were an adult male in the ancient world, 
age 17 years in 12-month years.  Those are not “miracles”.  What kind of 
bizarre “miracles” would that be?  Rather, the Hebrew author is saying that 
Ishmael had witnessed 13 total New Years when he was circumcised (3 years, in 
12-month years, before Ishmael was exiled), and that Joseph had witnessed 17 
total New Years when he was helping his older half-brothers (by his father’s 
minor wives) tend the flock.  Total New Years includes both fall New Years 
and spring New Years in the Patriarchal narratives, in my controversial 
view.  I agree with your analysis of the Hebrew and Jewish calendars.  But one 
consequence of having both a 12-month calendar that begins in the fall, and a 
second 12-month calendar that begins in the spring, is that a New Year 
celebration then occurs every 6 months.  It is my contention that the Hebrew 
author of the Patriarchal narratives adopted the daring, unique gambit of 
increasing everyone’s age in the text by one “year” at every New Year, including 
not only fall New Years, but also spring New Years as well.  That is my 
controversial, unique theory of the case.
 
I would never impugn anyone's religious beliefs.  But the b-Hebrew list is 
not an appropriate forum for anyone to assert that “people’s lives have 
been getting shorter”.  That is a demonstrably false proposition in secular 
history, regardless of whether or not there may have been divine miracles from 
time to time in history.  
 
Jim Stinehart
Evanston, Illinois

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