Sunday, July 1, 2007

Was Benjamin born before or after Joseph was sold into slavery?

Someone asked me this question one day. I thought I knew the answer. I was not so sure after reading the relevant passages in Genesis. If you liked On Which Day of the Week Did Christ Die?, you will like this Bible timeline brain twister.

I had always assumed that Benjamin was born (Genesis 35:16-20) first because it appears in the text before the account of Joseph being sold into slavery (Genesis 37:12-28). One must be cautious about making such assumptions, however, as the following example demonstrates.

The death of Isaac (Genesis 35:27-29), which appears just a few verses after the birth of Benjamin, definitely happened long after Joseph was sold into slavery. Isaac was 60 years old when Jacob was born (Genesis 25:26). This would put Jacob at 120 years old when Isaac died at 180 (Genesis 35:28). But Jacob lived in Egypt for 17 years and lived to be 147 years old (Genesis 47:28). This puts him at 130 when came down to Egypt. But Joseph was in Egypt for more than 20 years before Jacob came. He entered the Pharaoh’s service at age 30 (Genesis 41:46). This was before the 7 years of plenty (Genesis 41:47). Assuming that Joseph was seventeen when he was sold into slavery (Genesis 37:2) and that Jacob came to Egypt (Genesis 46:5-7) well after the seven years of plenty, this puts Isaac’s death at least ten years after Joseph was sold into slavery.

Notice that (Genesis 37:2) says, “This is the account of Jacob.” This seems to indicate that this part of the story is being told from Jacob’s point of view (as he heard it from Joseph after being reunited with him), and may therefore not be in chronologically in order with immediately preceding passages. Notice that this phrase “This is the account of” is used several other times in the book of Genesis (2:4, 5:1, 6:9, 10:1, 11:10, 11:27, 25:12, 25:19, 36:1).

One can examine the geographic references with respect to the events after Jacob left Padan Aram to look for clues to answer this question we are considering. Jacob settled in Shechem, which is in northern Canaan, after leaving Laban (Genesis 33:18, 19). After the unfortunate incident that happened there, he moved on to Bethel (Genesis 35:1), which is much farther south. Then while on the move to Ephrath (Genesis 35:16), which is Bethlehem (Genesis 35:19), Benjamin was born as his mother Rachel was dying (Genesis 35:18). Bethlehem is even further south. They then moved on again to Migdal Eder (I don’t know where that is), where Reuben slept with Bilhah, one of Jacob’s concubines (Genesis 35:21-22a). Notice that Benjamin is listed in the family table (Genesis 35:22b-26a), but is an apparent exception to the phrase “…were born to him in Padan Aram.” (Genesis 35:26b) Jacob then moved on to Hebron, which is even farther south than Bethlehem, which Isaac was (Genesis 35:27). When Jacob went down to Egypt, it only says that he was in Canaan (Genesis 45:25), and that he passed through Beersheba (Genesis 46:1) on the way (it is even further south than Hebron). But Joseph’s brothers were grazing their flocks near Shechem (Genesis 37:12) and Dothan (Genesis 37:17) at the time that Joseph was sold into slavery. This is far from Bethlehem, but it is possible that they could have moved back north near there after Benjamin was born.
The Bible says that “Israel loved Joseph more than any of his other sons, because he had been born to him in his old age…” (Genesis 37:3) This statement could be a hint that Benjamin hadn’t been born yet. But Joseph said of his dream, “the sun and the moon and eleven stars bowed down to me.” (Genesis 37:9) It seems from the text that, though this sounds boastful, it was what Joseph had actually dreamed. However, this does not necessarily mean that Benjamin had already been born. The dream was prophetic. Jacob did, however, perceive that the eleven stars represented Joseph’s brothers (Genesis 37:10). It seems like this wouldn’t have made sense to him if Benjamin hadn’t been born (or wasn’t about to be born). Jacob also interpreted the dream to mean that sun and moon represented “your mother and I” (Genesis 37:10). If Benjamin had already been born, then Rachel (Joseph’s mother) would have already died. But Joseph could have been speaking of the resurrection when he said, “then sun and moon …were bowing down to me” or that Jacob interpreted it this way. It is entirely possible that Jacob misinterpreted the meaning of the dream. The NIV study Bible commentary says that “your mother” referred to Leah, who would have assumed the role of their mother when Rachel died. They just assume that Rachel had already died. There is no record that I can see of Jacob, Rachel, or Leah bowing down to Joseph. But the brothers did bow down to him more than once and this presumably included Benjamin in Genesis 43:26.

In (Genesis 43:7), the brothers told their father that “the man” (Joseph) had asked them if they had another brother. But it seems like they were not exactly telling the truth from Genesis 42:13. They are the ones who brought up that “the youngest is now with our father” in defense of the accusation that they were spies. Note that they also lied when then they said, “…and one is no more” referring to Joseph.

What then can we say definitively about the difference in the ages of Joseph and Benjamin? Joseph was born before Jacob had agreed to stay another six years with Laban (Genesis 30:25, 31:28, 29:18, 27). Benjamin was clearly born after this. Benjamin was old enough to eat a meal (Genesis 43:34) when he came to Egypt and Joseph was about 37 years old at that time.

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