Where biblical criticism goes wrong

Where biblical criticism goes wrong

In just over a week’s time, the Torah reading on Shabbat (Parashat Va-yechi) ends both the long-running story of Joseph and the entire Book of Genesis (Sefer B’reishit). That affords us the opportunity for another look at the narrow-minded view of most scholars—both non-Jewish and Jewish—who study biblical texts critically to determine how they came to be, and the damage that has done to Judaism.

Most of these “critics” insist that there never was a Joseph, and so he could not have risen to any high government position in Egypt, much less to the position of viceroy. They note that no evidence of a Joseph has been found in any Egyptian records. Besides, it is laughable to assume that a Semitic prisoner accused of attempted rape would emerge from confinement and be given such exalted status, with almost unlimited power over Egypt. (That Joseph was imprisoned rather than executed suggests that his imprisonment was a face-saving gesture on the part of Potiphar, the woman’s husband, who actually did not believe his wife.)

What these critics ignore are the clues buried in the Torah’s text itself, such as the intimate knowledge of the pre-Exodus Egyptian court and its practices that permeates the Joseph saga—knowledge not available to an “author” several hundred years later.

As the late biblical scholar Nahum Sarna, who accepts Joseph’s existence, noted in his book “Understanding Genesis: The World of the Bible in the Light of History” (see pages 219ff), the Joseph saga “exhibits an extraordinary degree of familiarity with Egyptian customs. The multiplicity of titles and functions assigned to Joseph corresponds fully to the known Egyptian penchant for the generous distribution of honors and titles to officials of the great bureaucracy…. We do not know beyond the shadow of a doubt that Joseph was actually appointed Grand Vizier of Egypt, although he certainly … was one of the most important officials in the government.”

A Christian scholar, James K. Hoffmeier, also defends Joseph’s existence. As he wrote, “There is really nothing unbelievable or incredible about the narrative. The absence of direct evidence for Joseph, of course, does not disprove his existence because negative evidence proves nothing, while the indirect evidence supports the historicity of the story and its protagonist.” (See his ”Israel in Egypt,” page 97.)

Not only does the lack of “direct evidence” prove nothing, but its lack is not surprising. The story of Joseph, based on the textual clues we are given, could have occurred only somewhere between the end of Egypt’s 12th dynasty, on or about 1785 B.C.E. For the next 225 years, until the rise of the Pharaoh Ahmose and the start of the 18th dynasty circa 1560 B.C.E., no one person ever held sway over the entire nation. “Between these two dates was a period…, the first half of which is so poorly documented that knowledge of it hardly extends further than the names of rulers in the king-lists.” (See Nicolas Grimal, “A History of Ancient Egypt,” page 182.)

What the biblical critics hang on to, other than the lack of evidence in Egyptian sources, are such things as textual anachronisms and even a form of plagiarism.

Towards the end of this week’s Torah portion (Parashat Vayigash), for example, we are told that Joseph settled his family “in the land of Rameses” (see Genesis 47:11). Because there was no “land of Rameses” in Joseph’s time, the phrase indeed is an anachronism, and it is also used—wrongly—as yet another “proof” that Moses had nothing to do with writing the Torah that bears his name.

No consideration is given that Moses might have edited the text of the Joseph story to make it intelligible to his immediate audience, for whom “Rameses” was not an anachronism. Assuming Moses had anything to do with that Genesis narrative, “in the land of Rameses” is precisely the designation he or someone in his time would have used because it was an identifiable reference point for his “readers,” the Israelites whom Moses was leading out of Egypt.

In fact, the only time “in the land of Rameses” is not an anachronism is in the time of Moses; rather than disputing his authorship of the Torah, it makes it more likely. The “land of Rameses” did not exist much before Moses, and after him it ceases to be an instantly recognizable reference to people who never lived there, never visited there, and likely never heard of such a place existing in their day.

Then there is the “plagiarism” claim. According to the critics, the Joseph cycle is filled with ancient tales adapted to create the story. The one most often cited is the Egyptian “Tale of Two Brothers,” which the critics suggest was reworked into the tale of Joseph and Potiphar’s wife that is recounted in Genesis 39.

At the heart of both stories is the attempted seduction of a handsome young man by a married woman; in both, the young man resists and is then accused of attempted rape. It is there, however, that the similarity ends. All the magical and mystical elements of the “Brothers” tale are missing from Joseph’s story. The critics get around this by insisting that the “Brothers” tale provided the theme for the Torah’s version. It is as if the critics were saying that it is otherwise virtually unheard-of for a married woman of power to attempt to seduce a handsome young man over whom she has some control.

There is much more to be said about this, but not enough space here to say it. Joseph existed. Most likely, he did rise to the highest Egyptian heights. As I contend, he also most likely wrote most of the patriarchal narratives we read from Genesis 12 on. It was customary in Egypt for scribes to keep the court records and histories of high officials. Why, then, should Joseph not write his own?

The structure of the patriarchal narratives points directly to Joseph as author. The narratives begin with Abraham. His story, however, is episodic, not a continuous thread. It is as if the author were reporting tales told to him about Abraham, but otherwise knew nothing about the patriarch’s life, including what happened during the 13 years between the birth of Ishmael and the birth of Isaac (a period about which the Torah is silent).

With Isaac, the author reports very little at all and much of that is somewhat negative. In this case, it is as if the author was reporting only what he was told, and what he was told was biased. As to why, see further on.

From the time Jacob leaves home, the focus is more on him than on his father. Isaac’s story virtually ends with the appearance of Jacob. Rebekah, too, disappears; her death and burial go unrecorded, but her childhood nurse’s death is mentioned because she was with Jacob at the time. Except for Isaac’s sojourn in Gerar, which has relevance to Jacob’s story, we never return to Isaac or his life; we encounter him again only at his funeral. It is as if the reporter—meaning Jacob—left Isaac’s home at the same time.

It is unlikely that Isaac would have talked much to his sons about his father, probably because theirs was a strained relationship, as Jacob’s was with Isaac. Abraham, however, very likely would have recounted his adventures to his grandchildren. Despite the order in which things are presented in Genesis, Jacob and Esau were 15 years old when Abraham died.

Jacob’s story is more of a continuous narrative, but it too is spotty, at least before Joseph is born. Only with Joseph’s arrival does the narrative take on the veneer of a complete saga and it is Joseph, not Jacob, who is the central figure from then on, as the opening verse of last week’s Torah reading (Parashat Miketz) makes clear (see Genesis 37:2). When Joseph is taken to Egypt, Jacob’s story actually comes to an end; his subsequent appearances all are Joseph-related in some way, some perhaps told to Joseph by his brothers or by Jacob himself.

The Joseph saga, on the other hand, is a complete novella, from birth to death, at which point the Genesis narrative itself ends. The inference is obvious: Joseph was author of the whole, incorporating some of what Jacob told him about Abraham and Isaac. (That would account for the scant and somewhat negative view of Isaac in the text, because Jacob held his father in low esteem.)

The biblical critics would rather pick out words and phrases on which to hang their theories than look at the complete narrative. In so doing, they do a disservice to biblical scholarship, and whatever their motives, they cast doubt on the legitimacy of the Torah itself, thereby casting doubt on the legitimacy of the Judaism that flows from it and to its detriment, as attested to by survey after survey regarding Jewish identity.

Shammai Engelmayer is a rabbi-emeritus of Congregation Beth Israel of the Palisades and an adult education teacher in Bergen County. He is the author of eight books and the winner of 10 awards for his commentaries. His website is www.shammai.org.