- What is the point of this single narrative episode? In other words, if this text existed in a vacuum, how would we interpret it if the only context we had was the context of itself? Most texts aren’t like this, but it’s still a really useful exercise.
- What is the point of this episode in its larger narrative? In other words, is this text within Mark’s Gospel? If so, you should probably read it differently than if it were part of John’s Gospel, or even Luke’s! If it’s somewhere else, what is the larger narrative that helps guide the reading? This may be the entire book (such as a gospel), but it could also be a “cycle” (such as reading one episode as part of David’s life, or Saul’s, or the Judges, etc). When we do that, we should not just ask what specific context is going on, but what is the narrative point of this text: how does it forward the story? Why was this chosen instead of something else included? What do we read differently about this story as part of this narrative, rather than another.
- What is the point of this episode in the broader narrative? This is the broader section. So, if we were reading a text as part of Abraham’s narrative, now we can expand it to ask what it’s doing as part of Genesis’ narrative. If it were part of Saul’s narrative, we could ask what it’s doing as part of Samuels, or—even more—what it’s doing as part of the Deuteronomistic History!
- What is the point of this episode in the overarching metanarrative of the Bible? This is where you do your canonical criticism, if that’s your thing. Although this is generally considered very important by some believers, this generally isn’t considered important at all in some other areas of scholarship.
Generally, people focus on one of these elements. As my father, who is a family practitioner says, “It’s hard to be good at everything.” As you might guess, I tend to focus on #2 and #3. My Hebrew, Greek, and supplemental languages are fine but I’ve never pretended to be a linguist. I love history and have done quite a bit of it, but I’m not a true historian. I have done my fair share of archaeological study, but would never pretend to be an archaeologist. All of these things mean that—often times—others can do #1 better than me. I’m not a theologian, so I tend to leave off #4 as well. Although I appreciate those approaches, my skillset tends to focus on #2 and #3. But talking about theory, looking at things statically, is only so much fun. Let’s—to borrow a quote from Plato—see this theory in action.
And—still not surprising anyone who has been reading along for very long—one of the easiest places to see this work is in Joseph’s Cycle. Let’s look at a new text, Genesis 47.13–26! To catch you up to speed, there is a severe famine in the land following a serious agricultural windfall. Joseph and Pharaoh knew about the coming events, but they didn’t tell anyone else. People all around the Egyptian aegis are suffering from famine, and our episode picks up when even the Egyptians are feeling the effects:
There came a point when there was no more food in all the land, for the famine was very severe, so that the land of Egypt and the land of Canaan languished by reason of the famine. Joseph collected all the money that was found in the land of Egypt and in the land of Canaan, in exchange for the grain that they brought and Joseph brought the money into Pharaoh’s house. But when the money was all spent in the land of Egypt and in the land of Canaan, and all the Egyptians came to Joseph and said, “Give us food. Why should we die before your eyes? For our money is gone.” Then Joseph answered, “Give your livestock, and I will give you food in exchange for your livestock, if your money is gone.” So they brought their livestock to Joseph, and Joseph gave them food in exchange for the horses, the flocks, the herds, and the donkeys. He supplied them with food in exchange for all their livestock that year. But when that year was over, they came to him the following year and said to him, “We will not hide from my lord that our money is all gone and you already own all of our herds. There is nothing left for us to sell you but our bodies and our land. Why should we die before your eyes, both we and our land? Buy us and our land for food, and we with our land will be slaves to Pharaoh. And give us seed that we may live and not die, and that the land may not be desolate.”
So Joseph bought all the land of Egypt for Pharaoh, for all the Egyptians sold their fields, because the famine was severe on them. The land became Pharaoh’s. As for the people, he made slaves of them from one end of Egypt to the other. (Only the land of the priests he did not buy, for the priests had a fixed allowance from Pharaoh and lived on the allowance that Pharaoh gave them; therefore they did not sell their land.)
Then Joseph said to the people, “Behold, I have this day bought you and your land for Pharaoh. Now here is seed for you, and you shall sow the land. And at the harvests you shall give a fifth to Pharaoh, and four fifths shall be your own, as seed for the field and as food for yourselves and your households, and as food for your little ones.” And they said, “You have saved our lives; may it please my lord, we will be servants to Pharaoh.” So Joseph made it a statute concerning the land of Egypt, and it stands to this day, that Pharaoh should have the fifth; the land of the priests alone did not become Pharaoh’s (Gen 47.13–26).
In some ways, this is a pretty simple text: Joseph buys up all of the Egyptian lands and peoples and animals for Pharaoh during the famine in exchange for saving the lives of the Egyptians. But this text has caused a lot of problems for people in the past, trying to figure out how it fits into the Joseph Cycle, what it’s relevant to at all, and what to do with it.
Over the next two or three posts, I want to use this text to explore those four major ways of reading a text. Although the beginning may be a very good place to start, sometimes it’s easier to start with the larger questions. So, since I’m arbitrary and in sole command of this blog, so let’s look at #3 first: if we’re going to read this as part of the broader Genesis narrative, what do we notice about how this particular text contributes to it?
The obvious first step is to notice that this episode is about land. Each and every one of the patriarchal narratives (Gen 12–50) focus on one of two elements: land/wealth and progeny (sometimes, both! I’m looking at you, Gen 12.10ff). Every single one. They want to describe how the patriarchs gained land, where they got power / wealth, and what their lineage/progeny were gained / why they are legitimate. Flip through your Bible and consider each element and you’ll see how this is obviously a huge emphasis!
So we know that land is important to the Patriarchal narratives, in general. So, we should be primed to recognize how the land is important to this narrative as well! When we break the Patriarchal narratives down, we get something like Abraham (12–25a), Jacob (25b–35), and Joseph (37–50). But when you look more closely—right before the conclusion—the Genesis includes that the main character buys up land: Abraham buys the cave of Machpelah, Jacob buys land near Shechem, and now Joseph buys the land of Egypt. But, as we’ve discussed before, often times these intertextual links set up similarities to focus on differences. And notice what is different. Abraham buys/gains land in Canaan. Isaac buys/gains land in Canaan. Jacob buys/gains land in Canaan. But Joseph? Joseph buys/gains/gives land in Egypt. This is a huge issue! Throughout the Genesis narratives there is a leitmotif of Egypt vs. God, and this most frequently plays out in questions of famine and land (e.g., all of the patriarchs leave Canaan—which God tells them not to do!—when there is a famine. Only Jacob asks, first; Lot chooses land near Sodom because it “looks like Egypt’s land”; etc). So, here, we have a broader Genesis discussion of where their focus is; where do they want to live? In whom do they trust? And, here, I think Joseph fails. I think he is choosing an inheritance in Egypt over one in Canaan. Of course, ultimately, this will be reversed (Exd 13.19), but here, Joseph has sold out. He has enriched the Pharaoh, and he has enriched the priests, and he has enriched himself. But he has abandoned Canaan to do so.