Okay, this is going to be broken into two sections: Genesis 12 – 36, and 38 which cover a whole lot of time and people, and Genesis 37, 39 – 50, which focuses on Joseph son of Jacob (AKA Israel) son of Isaac, son of Abraham.
Genesis 12 – 36, and 38
So, this is really difficult to summarize because it read a bit like a summary already. And not just any summary, but like the TV guide version of a really fraught soap opera. Or, given the amount of incest, prostitution, making and breaking of alliances, and the one notable wedding massacre, possibly a summary of Game of Thrones. (Although very little violent rape, which is good. Kind of. Trickery and drugged non-consensual sex: sure; Violent rape: only once and definitely shown as being bad.)
It would be difficult to track who the protagonists are, if this were any other book (my impression from getting regular summaries of Game of Thrones, it’s a bit hard to keep track of who the good guys are there, too.) The way this book is written, though, the good guys are the winners and the winners are the good guys, pretty much by fiat. It’s the opposite of the moral from the Book of Job. If you win, then God must have been on your side. And the God of Genesis is not above being the heavy in a protection racket or supporting some pretty shady characters.
While it is tricky to find a moral here, it is not bad as an entertaining soap opera, and covers a lot of different sexual and political scenarios.
I’m increasingly unimpressed with people who try to use the bible to argue for chastity. Maybe that will come later. But in Genesis, people have sex because they want a child, but they also have sex because they feel like it, or because they want to get something from it, or they’ve been given to the person so that someone else can get something from it. And while there is a sense of sanctity in marriage, it is oddly something that foreigners are expected to respect rather than the protagonists. (Abraham and Isaac both pimped out their respective wives Sarah and Rachel, and then blackmailed the men who took them up on it. And in case a reader develops too much sympathy goes to the wives: Sarah and Rachel, in turn, pimped out their servants as surrogate brood mares to their husbands. At one point, Isaac was doing stud service to four women who traded his nights between them: ah, the fraught soap opera of the women’s quarters.)
Anyway, the plot does slow down a bit later, stops skipping through generations, and focuses on a single individual: Joseph.
Genesis 37, 39 – 50
This is not to say that Joseph’s life isn’t a soap opera all on it’s own. So Joseph, the youngest but one of twelve brothers*, gets uppity with his brothers about some dreams he’s having, and how he’s going to be the greatest of them all. So, they decide that rather than killing him, they’ll sell him into slavery and tell Jacob (AKA Israel) that he was mauled to death by a wild animal.
But Joseph succeeds in life and rises in the ranks of his new master’s servants until he’s running the whole estate. Then his master’s wife tries to seduce him and when he refuses, she accuses him of rape and he gets sent to prison. From prison, he gets noticed by the Pharaoh , who elevates him to a position where he rules all of Egypt, second in power only to Pharaoh who doesn’t appear to do much at all.
Then there’s a great famine and Joseph’s brothers come to buy food from Egypt, and Joseph provides very mixed messages regarding his thoughts on his brothers. There is much trickery and lying and wailing and weeping, and eventually it all works out because all the brothers plus father Jacob and their household of 70 all move to Egypt to live with Joseph and his wife and two kids.**
You might think this is more than enough plot to keep the writing pretty adventurous, but there is still a whole lot of repetition. There will literally be a conversation that happens between two characters and then one of those characters will recount the whole of that conversation to a third character, so the reader gets to read the exact same words twice. It’s makes it a bit difficult to keep track of my place in the text.
But anyway, there’s a lot of weeping on the neck and kissing on the face in this section.
Summary: This is a soap opera.***
Moral: I’m really not noticing any type of moral in here. If there’s a moral, it’s like that of Scheherazade’s 1001 Nights: people are people and you shouldn’t believe in stereotypes because each person is an individual who may be good or evil, clever or dumb, violent or peaceful.****
* The begats continue to get to me. Not only have there been many generations, but each generation contains many siblings and a lot of them get named. And they’re so tedious that I hadn’t even noticed before that there are repetitions even in the begat sections. Names aren’t re-used for other people, no, the exact same people get listed multiple times! “Person X’s son are A, B, C, D, E, and F. The sons of person X are A, B, C, D, E, and F. The first born son of person X was A, who fathered G, H, I, J, and K. The second born son of person X was B, who fathered L, M, and N. Thus the sons of person X were A, B, C, D, E, and F.” Yes, I know, I get it already!
** Oh the begats for those 70 people.
*** I’m reminded of a Stargate/NCIS fanfiction, Stardust, in which Daniel Jackson gets amnesia (again) and discovers a bible in the hotel room he’s staying in. Without any of the cultural weight behind it, the book is actually a pretty fascinating story, and all the rest of the characters kind of grin about how enthralled he is by the story.
**** Scheherazade spent some three years telling entertaining stories to her husband, in part to convince him that people were people, some good and some evil, some honorable and some dishonorable, and knowing one honorable man and one dishonorable woman does not mean that all men are honorable or all women dishonorable. The other part of the reason was the more immediate goal of: don’t kill me before I finish the story. Who wants a show canceled on a cliff-hanger?
Up Next: Exodus
You skipped over Joseph’s most well-known quality – his technicolor dreamcoat! Anyway, do you think there is so much repetition because these used to be all oral tellings, so they needed more repetition to keep everyone on the same page, so to speak?
Haha! I was looking forward to reading about Joseph’s technicolor dreamcoat and then it was just such a minor detail! I kept expecting more.
And for fun details, I enjoyed much more the fact that Rachel stole from her father and then, when he came looking, sat on the stolen goods and told her father she’s on her period and so couldn’t rise to great him.
And hmm, I bet you’re right, that the repetition comes from the oral tradition.
I always thought the story of Judah and Tamar [Genesis 38] was pretty striking.
Oh yes. Judah and Tamar remind me of Lot and his daughters. Sex and procreation are very much a practical matter, and these were some problem solving ladies.