Thursday, August 24, 2023

Midrash in Genesis


Dr. Alice C. Linsley

The book of Genesis provides important anthropological information about the early Hebrew, a ruler-priest caste that dispersed out of Africa into Arabia, Mesopotamia, Anatolia, and beyond. I have written about their social structure, religious beliefs, territorial expansion, trade routes, and influence on the populations of the Fertile Crescent and Ancient Near East in my book The First Lords of the Earth; An Anthropological Study. That book explains in great detail the distinctive Hebrew marriage and ascendancy pattern involving two wives and the hierarchy of their firstborn sons.

Understanding the kinship pattern of the biblical Hebrew is important because it proves that the people of Genesis were historical; it identifies Adam and Eve's descendants as Hebrew; and it demonstrates that there were many Hebrew clans besides the clan of Jacob (Israel). Genesis through the lens of anthropology clarifies a distorted picture. The distortion comes from later Jewish midrashim.

Midrash is a Jewish or rabbinic mode of interpretation prominent in the Talmud. The centuries-long process of Midrashic accounts began with the redaction of the Bible around 400 B.C. That means that Genesis has a narrative overlayer that comes from anonymous sources dating to nearly 1500 years after the time of Jacob.

Knowledge of the social structure of the biblical Hebrew explains why many things happened the way they did. However, the midrashim in the Old Testament often give a different explanation for events that took place thousands of years before Judaism emerged. It is characterized by some literary devices such as famines that drive the Hebrew people into Egypt, or the jealousy of brothers who sell a favored son into slavery.

Midrash tends to point to God or supernatural intervention as an explanation for why things happened. An example is Mordecai’s declaration to Esther: “Think not with thyself that thou shalt escape in the king's house, more than all the Jews. For if thou altogether holdest thy peace at this time, then shall enlargement and deliverance arise to the Jews from another place; but thou and thy father's house shall be destroyed: and who knoweth whether thou art come to the kingdom for such a time as this?” (Esther 4:12-14)

Another example is Joseph’s declaration to his brothers: “Now therefore be not grieved, nor angry with yourselves, that ye sold me hither: for God did send me before you to preserve life. For these two years hath the famine been in the land: and yet there are five years, in the which there shall neither be earing nor harvest. And God sent me before you to preserve you a posterity in the earth, and to save your lives by a great deliverance.” (Gen. 45:5-7)

The story of Joseph according to midrash supposes that Jacob's favoritism shown to Joseph invoked jealousy among Joseph's brothers who sold him into slavery. Next, he is in Egypt serving in the household of a high-ranking Egyptian named Potiphar. We are led to believe that this Potiphar is not the same man as Potiphar, a priest of the very prestigious shrine city On (Heliopolis). Due to his ability to discern the meaning of dreams, Joseph comes to the attention of the King of Egypt who elevates him to a high government position and arranges for Joseph to marry Asenath, the daughter of Potiphar, an Onite priest.

Now, based on our knowledge of the marriage and ascendancy pattern of the biblical Hebrew, here is the story minus the midrash.

Joseph was not Jacob's heir. That was Reuben, the firstborn son of Leah. Reuben lost his father's favor when he usurped Jacob's authority by sleeping with Jacob's concubine Bilhah. However, by law Reuben remained Jacob's proper heir. The proper heir was the firstborn son of the first wife, usually a patrilineal half-sister. Leah was probably Jacob's half-sister, just as Sarah was Abraham's half-sister. Midrash would have us believe that Jacob's two wives were sisters. That is unlikely. Jacob probably married according to the pattern of his Hebrew ancestors. These were arranged marriages among high-status rulers and priests. The Hebrew only married within their caste (endogamy).

Joseph was the firstborn son of Jacob's cousin bride and as such he was to be sent away to serve in the household of his maternal uncle. This was a common pattern for sent-away sons. Jacob was sent away and he served his uncle Laban. Moses was sent away and he served his uncle Jetro, a priest of Midian. It appears that Potiphar was Joseph's maternal uncle and his avunculocal residence in Egypt was consistent with the marriage and ascendancy pattern of the early Hebrew ruler-priests caste.

Joseph's ruler-priest caste was well recognized in Egypt since that is the point of origin of the Horite and Sethite Hebrew. The Hebrew caste had a moiety structure that consisted of these two ritual groups. There were many Horite and Sethite Mounds on Nile River.

Joseph was recognized as one who opens dreams and visions. In Genesis, he is called abrikku; which is related to the Akkadian abarakku, which means grand vizier (Delitzsch, Hebrew Language Viewed in the Light of Assyrian Research, p. 26). The term abrikku is also related to the Akkadian word for priest, which is abru. Joseph's Hebrew ruler-priest caste was known to have prophets. Asaph was the chief of the Temple musicians, and he prophesied in song, a common practice in the ancient world. Among the Egyptians, the gifts of the seer were highly valued.

Joseph's marriage to his cousin Asenath was arranged by the Pharoah and Asenath's father Potiphar. Potiphar was a priest of On, the capital of the 15th Nome of Lower Egypt. Asenath's two sons did not belong to the same households. The firstborn son Manasseh belonged to the household of Potiphar and the Heliopolis shrine, whereas Ephraim, her younger son belonged to the household of Jacob. This explains why Jacob gave Ephraim the blessing that pertained to the firstborn (Gen. 48:14).

Potiphar was the high chamberlain and a member of Pharaoh’s court. He is the man with the wife who sought the amorous attention of the handsome young Joseph in her bedroom. Many do not believe that this Potiphar is the same man as an Onite priest by the same name because they do not understand that priests of the ancient world held multiple titles and served multiple roles. This easily could be the same man because the Hebrew priest's duties only took him away from his home for about 2 months of the year. We should not assume that being a priest excludes the other roles described. Consider how the Hebrew priests of Canaan were shepherds, masons, miners, carpenters, farmers, and fisherman as well as priests. There were 24 divisions of priests in Israel because each division only served twice a year at the temple in Jerusalem.

The Potiphar Stela in the Cairo Museum (c.1070–945 B.C.) is the first known mention of this specific name. It indicates that Potiphar/Potiphera was a prominent Egyptian official, keeper of the storehouse of Ptah. The stela speaks of Potiphar as the "son of Horus, may He live forever." Evidently, Asenath and her father were devotees of Horus, the son of God. That means that they shared the same religion as Jacob the Horite Hebrew. The Hebrew believed in God Father and God Son.

It is likely that Potiphar was Joseph’s maternal uncle. Sent-away sons went to live with and serve in the households of their maternal grandfathers. It is likely that Joseph’s mother Rachel was related to a noble Egyptian house and that Potiphar was Joseph's maternal uncle. If that is the case, the marriage arranged by Pharoah between Asenath and Joseph was consistent with the Hebrew custom of marrying cousins.

Joseph was placed in charge of assessments of grain paid as tribute to Pharoah and the oversight of Pharoah's granaries along the length of the Nile, the longest river on earth. This was a very high position and one that would have required the skills of a politically savvy man. 


  1. This is a really interesting analysis, Alice. I've enjoyed going through your posts and gaining a more in-depth context for biblical times, especially the culture of the Israelites.
    In your opinion regarding this specific topic were the events in Genesis concerning Joseph's coat, and the rivalry with his brother's all fabricated?

  2. Fabricated? No. Midrash is narrative embroidery usually built on something that happened. The coat of many colors would be worn by a son of high social rank, such as Joseph. Even his Hebrew name "Yosef", with the initial solar cradle Y, suggests his high rank. The Hebrew hierarchy of sons was well understood by Jacob's sons. Each knew his place in that hierarchy, but jealousies would have existed.


Your comments are welcome. Please stay on topic and provide examples to support your point.