This article originally appeared in the Jewish Free Press, Calgary

A War of Convenience *

The closing chapters of the book of Genesis describe the twilight of the age of the Hebrew patriarchs, and contain descriptions of the deaths and funerals of the principal protagonists. In recognition of Joseph’s senior position in the Egyptian administration, his father Jacob was given a solemn state funeral attended by Egyptian dignitaries, and was then buried in the family tomb in Hebron. Joseph, on the other hand, stipulated that his bodily remains should not yet be transferred to their ancestral soil, but were to be interred in Egypt until the day when the Almighty will take the entire family out of Egypt—as would indeed come to pass when the Israelites were liberated from Egypt in the days of Moses.

But what about Jacob’s other eleven sons, Joseph’s brothers—what was done to their bodies when they died? The Bible provides no information about their funerals, and we might suppose that they were given inconspicuous burials in Egypt.

Not surprisingly, this question was addressed by the rabbis of the midrash and by traditional commentators. Most Jewish interpreters preferred to believe that Joseph's brothers were also transported for interment in the holy land. Rabbi Meir discerned a textual clue to that effect in the wording of Joseph’s final assurance to his siblings that God will “bring you out of this land unto the land which he swore to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob.” The “you” here was understood to refer to the brothers themselves, and not merely to the family or nation as a collectivity. “This indicates that each and every tribe will escort the head of their tribe.”

Some  remarkable theories regarding the funerals of Jacob’s sons are to be found in texts that were composed during the era of the second Temple, representing a vast literature that was devoted to interpreting, elaborating and retelling the narratives of the Jewish scriptures.

For instance, the ancient library unearthed at Qumran—the Dead Sea scrolls—preserves several fragments from an otherwise unknown Aramaic work that has been given the title "the Visions of Amram," and which claims to be a memoir written by Moses's father. In this document, the hero recalls the time when he went up to the land of Canaan as part of a large cohort that included children of all Jacob's sons in order to arrange the burials of their fathers. However, in the first year of their mission an ominous rumour of impending war caused most of them to hurry back to Egypt. Amram himself remained in Hebron to complete the construction of tombs, and after the outbreak of hostilities between the Philistines and the Egyptians he found himself unable to return. The subsequent defeat of Egypt brought a halt to all travel between the countries.

The Visions of Amram was not unique in introducing a war between Egypt and Canaan in order to fill in gaps in the biblical story. Remarkably similar accounts appear in other writings from that era, most prominently in the “Book of Jubilees,” a volume that was widely known to ancient authors in Greek and Ethiopic translations, but whose Hebrew original was lost until the unearthing of the Dead Sea scrolls in the mid-twentieth century. In its retelling of the stories in Genesis, Jubilees inserts many details that are not found in the biblical account. Some of these additions are clearly intended to promote the author’s distinctive religious beliefs, especially his advocacy of a solar calendar and his division of history into forty-nine-year “jubilee” units. However, there are also details that seem to be responding to the same kinds of exegetical questions that stimulated other commentators.

Thus, the Book of Jubilees makes extensive reference to the war that broke out between Canaan and Egypt shortly after Joseph’s death, going so far as to identify specific localities on the strategic map. It regards this war as the principal factor that prevented Joseph’s immediate burial in the land of Israel, in that it resulted in a closure of the borders between the two states.

Joseph’s deathbed testament to his brothers, which appears in the scriptural text as a terse insistence that his bones must remain in Egypt until “God will surely visit you,” is supplemented in Jubilees by a detailed account of the political and military circumstances that underlay the injunction: a Canaanite king named Makamaron attacked Egypt and succeeded in killing its monarch. The new Pharaoh was able to turn the tide and take the battle into Canaanite territory. In the end, the hostilities brought about a closure of the border, preventing Jacob’s descendants from conducting funerals in Canaan as they had done for Jacob. Joseph, who was always adept at forecasting future events, anticipated that approaching war, and for that reason released his brothers from any obligation to bury him in Canaan.

The insertion of this otherwise unknown war helps resolve several of the difficulties and gaps in the biblical narrative. For example, the sudden death of the Pharaoh at the hands of the Canaanite enemy provides us with a specific explanation for how the continuity of Egypt’s royal succession was interrupted at around this time, so that “there arose up a new king over Egypt, which knew not Joseph.” It also provides a setting for the new Pharaoh's fears that “if war breaks out, they will join our enemies, fight against us and leave the country.” Some scholars have suggested that the Book of Jubilees was really relating to political and military events closer to its own time, such as the ongoing hostilities between the two principal Hellenistic kingdoms, the Ptolemies of Egypt and the Seleucids of Syria.

As for Joseph's brothers, Jubilees found a way of dating their burials based on the timeline of the Egyptian-Canaanite campaign. The Egyptians, following their initial defeat, were able to rally their troops to a successful counterattack, thereby providing the Hebrews with a window of opportunity during which they could bury Jacob's sons in the family tomb of Machpelah in Hebron. This occurred shortly after their deaths, before the enslavement. Only Joseph’s body was left in Egypt in deference to the oath that he had imposed on his brothers not to remove his bones until the entire nation was ready to be liberated from exile.

According to Jubilees, some of the Hebrews who made the journey to Canaan found themselves unable to return to Egypt on account of a reversal in the military situation, as a new Canaanite attack led once again to a sealing of the international border. As in the “Visions of Amram” scroll, Jubilees singles out Amram as one who was stranded in Canaan and separated from his wife for four decades. Perhaps this curious detail was introduced in order to explain why Amram and Jochebed produced only three offspring in a generation that was notable for its prodigious birth rate.

The lasting value of these details lies not so much in their veracity but in the insights they furnish into challenges and anomalies that are inherent to the scriptural accounts. While helping to resolve these difficulties, the motif of the Canaanite-Egyptian war is also drawing our attention to their existence.

Pseudepigraphic works like the Visions of Amram and the Book of Jubilees were not accepted into the normative rabbinic tradition, and for two millennia they remained lost and unknown to most Jews. Perhaps the time has come for these precious records of the Jewish exegetical spirit to be repatriated, instead of being relegated to virtual burial in neglected scholarly tomes.

This article and many others are now included in the book

Chronicles and Commentaries
Chronicles and Commentaries

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  • First Publication:
    • The Jewish Free Press, Calgary, December 6, 2013, p. 14.
  • For further reading:
    • Berger, Klaus. Das Buch der Jubiläen. Gütersloher Verlagshaus. Vol. 2. Studien zu den jüdischen Schriften aus hellenistisch-römischer Zeit 1. Gutersloh: Gerd Mohn, 1981.
    • Beyer, Klaus. Die Aramäischen Texte Vom Toten Meer: Samt Den Inschriften Aus Palästina, Dem Testament Levis Aus Der Kairoer Genisa, Der Fastenrolle Und Den Alten Talmudischen Zitaten: Aramaistische Einleitung, Text, Übersetzung, Deutung, Grammatik/Wörterbuch, Deutsch-aramäische Wortliste, Register. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1984.
    • Blidstein, Gerald J. The Ephraimite Exodus from EgyptA Re-Evaluation. Jerusalem Studies in Jewish Thought 5 (1988): 115.
    • Doran, Robert. “The Non-Dating of Jubilees: Jub 34-38; 23:14-32 in Narrative= Context.” Journal for the Study of Judaism in the Persian, Hellenistic and Roman Period 20, no. 1 (1989): 1–11.
    • Duke, Robert R. The Social Location of the Visions of Amram (4q543-547). Studies in Biblical Literature v. 135. New York: Peter Lang, 2010.
    • Kugel, James L. In Potiphar’s House: The Interpretive Life of Biblical Texts. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1994.
    • Puech, Émile, ed. Qumrân Cave 4 22: Textes Araméens, premiere partie 4Q52-549. Discoveries in the Judean Desert 31. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001.
    • Segal, Michael. The Book of Jubilees: Rewritten Bible, Redaction, Ideology, and Theology. Supplements to the Journal for the Study of Judaism volume 117. Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2007.
    • VanderKam, James C. “Jubilees 46:6-47:1 and 4QVisions of Amram.” Dead Sea Discoveries 17, no. 2 (2010): 141–158