I’ve begun again in Genesis, in my ever-continuing read-through of the Bible. Every time I read each familiar passage, I have new questions, new reflections and often write them down. As I read the Bible, it is very real to me. Very authentic. I love comparing translations which scholars have faithfully produced in their sincere efforts to accurately preserve the meaning of Scripture for all generations. I find the variant and sometimes contradictory texts to be insignificant to either the integrity of the Bible as a whole, or to the theology of my faith. Critics who jump on errors such as the misspelling of words, name differences or conflicting numerical records to show how unreliable the Bible is, are straining out gnats while swallowing camels (to borrow a little phrase Jesus once used).
Recently, I’ve been thinking a lot about the concept of “Abrahamic” religions — that we share our religious origins with Islam. I completely reject that notion, if for no other reason than because Jesus reprimanded some legalistic Jews, saying Satan, not Abraham was their father. Having Abraham as your father is as much a spiritual condition as it is genetic. Genesis clearly shows that there was a parting of the ways between Isaac and Ishmael. Islam teaches that Ishmael was God’s choice but the Bible is clear that it was Isaac. Then, there was a parting of the ways between Jacob and Esau. Esau underscored his enmity with Jacob by marrying one of Ishmael’s daughters.
But Jacob was God’s choice. God changed his name to Israel, and from his descendants came King David, whose throne God established forever and from which the Messiah would rule and be Lord of the whole earth. That’s why the New Testament genealogies are so important. They show that Jesus fulfilled the O.T. prophesies, that he is indeed the Messiah. This throws a monkey wrench into Islamic theology, so Muslims insist that the Bible is inaccurate, unreliable and just plain wrong about Ishmael. Ignoring what the New Testament teaches, Islam claims to revere Jesus as a prophet of God. Islam came along some six centuries after Jesus but claims to know more about Jesus than the writers of the New Testament, some of whom actually knew him personally.
But I am getting way ahead of myself. Long before Jesus, long before King David, Israel was just a man with twelve sons and their families. The story of Joseph is fascinating. He was Israel’s second youngest son. Benjamin was the youngest and his mother, Rachel, died giving birth to him. As I read about these things I wondered about the passage of time — apparently insignificant to the substance of the story, but nevertheless a point of interest to me. I begin by wondering how much time passed between the birth of Joseph and the birth of Benjamin, his younger brother. Here are my thoughts:
We do not know how much time passed between the birth of Joseph and the birth of Benjamin. Genesis 29:23 tells us that Joseph was born when Jacob was still working for Laban in Paddan Aran. Before Rachel died giving birth to Benjamin (35:18) on the way from Bethel to Ephrath (Bethlehem), several things transpired which required the passage of time: Jacob became wealthy as God increased his flocks; he fled with his family to Canaan (Joseph would have had to be old enough to travel.); he wrestled with the angel of God; he met with Esau; and he traveled (presumably with his flocks) throughout Canaan and Gilead, staying in Shechem and Bethel for unspecified periods of time.
Genesis 37:2 says Joseph was 17 years old, tending flocks with his older brothers. His father’s favoritism, symbolized by the special robe he made for him caused his brothers to hate him, which was only made worse by Joseph telling them his dreams of ruling over them. Benjamin had already been born by this time, so at the very least we can say Joseph was no more than 17 years older than Benjamin.
37:11 says, “his father kept the matter in mind” which also implies the passage of time. In the following verses his father sends him to Shechem (approximately 50 miles away), where his brothers were grazing the flocks. It doesn’t seem likely that Jacob would send his teenage son on such a trip. 37:15 says a man found him wandering around Shechem, which indicates he was alone. Probably, he would have been at least 20 years old, which in later times became the age of being counted for responsibilities such as military and temple service.
39:1-6 tells us that after Potifar bought Joseph as a slave he became the manager of Potifar’s property and business affairs. That would have only happened over time, as Joseph gained Potifar’s trust and respect. I would guess a minimum of four years for that to happen, using the standard time for an apprenticeship or a college education.
Equally, I would guess a minimum of another four years would be required in the prison, where 39:22 tells us the prison warden made Joseph supervisor of all the prisoners. It would have taken some time for him to impress the warden because he was placed with the King’s prisoners, who could be individuals of position in the King’s court, such as his baker and cup-bearer.
41:46 tells us that Joseph was 30 years old when he came before the Pharaoh. From the above assumptions, it is reasonable to guess that Joseph was approximately 20 when his brothers sold him, and that he spent approximately five years with Potifar and approximately five years in prison.
In 45:6 Joseph says the famine had been going on for two years and would continue for another five. That means that nine years had passed (7 years of abundance and two years of famine) since Joseph had first stood before the Pharaoh. He was 39 years old and it had been 22 years since he told his family his dreams of ruling over them.
In Genesis 43:8 Judah refers to Benjamin as “the boy”, which must be taken as a term of endearment, essentially the same as “the baby of the family”, a term often used to describe adult children today. Benjamin had to have been at least a young man in his twenties, but most likely even older, perhaps in his early thirties, because in 46:21 where he is listed among the seventy family members of Israel, he has ten sons! This was at the time of the famine when Joseph was 39 and Benjamin was “the boy”.
The “rest of the story” is that this family prospered and grew in Egypt. Genesis 50:22 & 23 tell us Joseph lived to be 110 and saw the third generation of his son, Ephraim’s children. In time, the twelve sons became twelve tribes. But a day came when a new Pharaoh rose to power who did not know about Joseph and who made the Israelites slaves because he considered them a threat. They remained in slavery for some 400 years until God raised up Moses, who led them out of Egypt, into the land that God had first promised to Abraham and his descendants. Under God’s guidance, a man became a family who became a people who became a nation — God’s chosen people, Israel.