The Animals' Bible - Chapter 1 - Genesis - Part 4 - Abraham to Joseph
From All Creatures Book and Video Review Guide

Author: Ian Stuart
Anyone who wants an advance copy of The Animals' Bible should contact the author by e-mail at: [email protected] (Canada).

Modern human beings have lived in the Middle East and North Africa for more than twice the span of recorded history.  Some 5,000 years ago, the Egyptians began to build a great civilization in the Nile valley.  The Akkadians raised yet another in the Tigris-Euphrates valley, a string of city states that came to be called Mesopotamia and was dominated by the Sumerians who developed the greatest civilization the world had ever seen.  Approximately 4,000 years ago, people began to spread out from this "cradle of civilization" and migrate to surrounding lands.  One of these migrants was Avram (Abram) who appeared on the world stage somewhere between 2200 and 1200 BCE.

Abram is often credited with being the world’s first monotheist although the Egyptian Pharaoh Akhenaton22 had already made an attempt to convert the religion of Egypt from polytheism – belief in many gods – to the worship of a single deity, the creator sun god Ra, sometimes written Re.  This religious revolution didn’t last, however.  When his grandson, the boy-king Tutankhamun became Pharaoh, the old multi-god system was restored and almost all evidence of Akhenaton’s reign obliterated.

The story of the Bible from here on is the story of Abram and his descendents.  Since God later changed his name to Ibrahim (Abraham) I will use this name ("the father is exalted", "father of many" or "father of a nation") exclusively.

Although Abraham’s ancestry was Semitic and Aramean, Abraham was a Sumerian by nationality, born in the city-state of Ur.  As such he followed the polytheistic religion of Sumer in which it was common to worship statues and images of the various deities.  His father even manufactured small versions of these "gods" for use in household shrines or to be carried on the person as religious charms.

It would be totally naive to believe that the people of Sumer thought the idols of their gods were their gods.  Most of them undoubtedly understood that the images were symbols of the deities, or that the god or goddess involved was somehow magically present in or around such idols.  However, to Abraham they had become only clumps of the stone, wood and metal from which they were made and it was this realization that led him to believe that a single true God must exist.  This concept – monotheism – was one of the truly original ideas of human history.

Believing there must be only one Supreme Being, Abraham sincerely sought that Deity. In response, El Shaddai23 spoke to him, announced that he was that God, and promised Abraham he would be the father of a great people, his descendents as numerous as the stars in the sky or the grains of sand on all the shores of the earth.  This was clearly figurative speech.  Modern Jews would have to number in the trillions. Similar to the use of the numeral 1,000, this is a symbolic expression signifying "a great many" - too numerous to count.

When God ordered him to "Lech Lecka!" ("Get up and go!") Abraham left Ur and set out with his father, Terah24, his brothers Nahor and Harran and his nephew Lot and began a migration along well-known Amorite trade routes to a mysterious new land that El Shaddai promised to him and his descendants.  With the benefit of hindsight we know this land was Canaan, but Abraham had no idea where he was going.  When most people were moving into the cities from the outlaying lands, Abraham was travelling in the opposite direction.  His friends must have thought he was insane, and he was undoubtedly sceptical about the enterprise himself.  When he asked El Shaddai how he could be sure he would gain possession of this Promised Land, God made a request.

"Bring me a heifer, a goat and a ram, each three years old, along with a dove and a young pigeon."(15:59)

Abraham promptly did what he was told, then, in 15:10, cut the mammals in half

Abram brought all these to him, cut them in two and arranged the halves opposite each other; the birds, however, he did not cut in half.

There is no indication God told him to do this, but the behaviour is so bizarre, Abraham must have believed he was obeying a divine command.  He waited all day, protecting the bodies from the birds of prey, which tried to feed on them, but nothing happened.  Then night came and the Lord indeed moved in a mysterious way.   "When the sun had set and darkness had fallen, a smoking firepot with a blazing torch appeared and passed between the pieces.  On that day the Lord made a covenant with Abram…" (15:17-18) by which he gave him and his descendents the Mediterranean coastal region of Canaan.

The meaning and function of that ritual is not explained, but it was common when making a solemn covenant in those days for the parties to pass between the halves of a body, a practise that is also mentioned in the prophetic book of Jeremiah. They were saying to each other, "If I break my faith with you, this will be my fate." The firepot and torch are more difficult to explain.  I can only suggest they were components of a covenant ceremony common at the time whose meaning is no longer understood.

We can only wonder why God required, or participated in, such a bizarre ceremony.  Why did he have Abraham go through all this to make a covenant he could have established – as he might have done in Noah’s case – with a thought?   The usual answer is that being the one and only Sovereign Deity he can do as he pleases.  If he wants to demand or perform unusual rituals, that’s his right.   The fact that the creature doesn’t understand the Creator’s demands or motives is irrelevant.  You may disagree, but such responses merely tell me the person making them doesn’t know the answer.  Surely we can admit to God, "I see it on the printed page, Lord, but I just don’t understand it," and our clergy can be honest enough to say, "Yes, I know it’s in the Bible, but I don’t know what it means."

A theophany is an experience of the Divine in physical form, and several such events are described in the pages of Scripture.  In an incident in the life of Abraham the Lord appeared to him as one of three men for whom the patriarch actually killed and cooked a calf, which the three visitors – the Lord in disguise and two angelic companions – actually ate!

Then (Abraham) ran to the herd and selected a choice, tender calf and gave it to a servant, who hurried to prepare it.  He then brought some curds and milk and the calf that had been prepared, and set these before them.  While they ate, he stood near them under a tree. (18:7-8)

"Choice" and "tender" sound like promotional copy for a supermarket meat counter and are a clear indication of the value of that calf’s life.  It we read only Genesis we might conclude that this passage is nothing more than the description of an act of hospitality.  However, the apocryphal Testament of Abraham tells us the heavenly visitors converted it into a profound and symbolic miracle.   After they consumed the calf it was restored to life!

Although God made a covenant with his creatures not to wipe them from the face of the earth with a flood, he still destroyed innocent animals, their environment and food supply by other means along with human beings, not because of anything the animals had done but due to human wickedness.

Then the LORDrained down burning sulphur on Sodom and Gomorrah…he overthrew those cities and the entire plain, including all those living in the cities – and also the vegetation in the land.(19:24-25)

The destruction of these infamous cities would have killed all – or most – of the people.  It would also have killed all – or most – of the animals.  The devastation of the environment around the cities would have killed all the local wildlife.  The birds and animals that didn’t die in the initial conflagration would have been poisoned by the sulphur in whatever sources of water remained or perished of starvation because their food supply was destroyed.  And all this because of human disobedience for which they had absolutely no responsibility.

Since the Hebrew tribes were primarily tenders of livestock and lived as nomadic tent-dwellers, it is not surprising that their word for flocks and herds also meant wealth.  Genesis records that Abram owned sheep, cattle, donkeys and camels which is supported by Jubilees which tells us he was held in high esteem because of his wealth - sheep, cattle, asses, horses and camels.  Along with human slaves, animals were the most valuable commodities in this Neolithic culture.  They were often the reason for attacks by neighbouring tribes, and were even utilized in making treaties or as testamentary evidence.  There are many Biblical incidents that prove this such as Abraham giving sheep and cattle to Abimalech to seal a pact between them and offering seven ewe lambs as a witness that he had dug a well.

From living sheep these wanderers obtained milk; from those they killed they took meat and hides.  Sheep also provided fleece, –however unwillingly – which was removed in great shearing festivals at the beginning of the summer and woven into cloth.  The animals still living in the Middle East are descendants of ancestors that grazed the hills of Palestine thousands of years earlier.  The breed has a black head, a white body and a broad tail that could weight as much as twenty pounds and was set-aside for YHWH in ritual sacrifices because it was primarily fat.

The abundance and importance of these ovine animals is the main reason they are mentioned so often – both literally and symbolically - in the Old Testament, the Apocrypha and the New Testament.  They are the most apt symbol of this people and the three religions that sprang from one common ancestor - Abraham.

Cattle were also raised by this nomadic people along with goats, which utilized vast land areas where traditional agriculture was impossible because of poor soil.  Even when the Israelites23 invaded and settled Canaan and began to live a more stationary life-style dependent on crops, they continued to raise cattle, sheep and goats.

Most of these animals grazed in relative freedom in the open under the watchful eyes of shepherds; others were kept in confined areas near the campsites or homes.  Since the Israelites never understood the use of oats or hay, work animals and calves being fattened for slaughter were fed on chopped straw, barley, bran or beans, frequently seasoned with salt and herbs.

Another important animal to the Hebrews was the Ass.  Although the New International Version (NIV) uses "donkey", the animal was actually the Onager or Ass, the larger, stronger and some claim more intelligent version of the modern animal.  Tamed, domestic Asses were the primary method of personal transportation in the Biblical era, since horses were used almost exclusively for war.  However – even though God forbade it – hybrids were created by interbreeding the horse and the ass.  This produces the animal known as a mule, which is very strong, almost as large as the horse, but sterile and unable to reproduce its own kind.

The Biblical Ass could have been Equus hemionus from Asia or Equus africanus from Africa. They were usually grey with reddish markings although some were white or chestnut coloured and considered the most valuable.  Privileged, they were used to carry the king and other prominent citizens, and - as we will discover - YHWH may have appeared in the Temple in this form where he was seen by the High Priest, Zacharias who was promptly struck dumb to prevent him from telling anyone about this unusual theophany.

Virtually unchanged since the time of Abraham, the Ass is a steady, reliable animal with great stamina and amazing sure-footedness.  Males can be quite aggressive, but the females are manageable and produce high quality milk.  Declared ceremonially unclean by God, they were never eaten or ritually sacrificed.  However, in times of famine, the Bible tells us they were sometimes killed for food by the desperate in defiance of the divine prohibition against eating their flesh.

The Israelites were very aware of wild Onagers since they co-existed with their domesticated cousins.  These animals, including the now-extinct Syrian Ass, lived in the desert in flocks, skirting natural enemies like the lion, and wanting nothing to do with human beings.  While the Hebrew terms that refer to these animals are usually considered to be synonymous, some Biblical commentators have stated that ‘arod means "wild ass" while pere’ means "zebra". Ooops. Zebras never lived in Palestine.  The terms were probably intended to distinguish the two sub-species of wild ass.

Abraham shared something unique with his God that no human being of the time, unless he was a king or high priest, would have dared to claim – a personal relationship.  Yahweh responded by assuring that he fathered two very important sons. Ishmael, born to him when he was 86 by his wife’s maid, Hazor, became the progenitor of the Arab peoples and an ancestor of Prophet Mohammed.  His second son Yitzhak (Isaac), born when Abraham was 100 by his wife, Sarai (Sarah) became the progenitor of the Jews.

God apparently did not know Abraham well enough to be assured of his total obedience and decided to test the aged patriarch by demanding that he perform a soul-shattering task.  He ordered him to sacrifice his only son.  There is a problem here about which son is the real center of this story since Abraham’s only son for 14 years (before Isaac was born) was Ishmael.  However, setting that controversy aside, what Abraham went through because of this command is impossible to imagine but he proved his loyalty and obedience to El Shaddai by taking the boy to the wilderness, prepared to slay him and offer his body as a burnt offering.  Here – once again – is another mystery relating to the Hebrew understanding of God’s nature and personality.  Why would he put this man to such a test? Did he not know what Abraham would do in advance?

On the way to the sacrifice on Mount Moriah (the location of the future Jerusalem and the site of the Temple of Solomon) the boy was understandably confused.

"The fire and wood are here," Isaac said, "but where is the lamb for the burnt offering?" Abraham answered: "God himself will provide the lamb…" (22:7-8)

But when they arrived at the site, there was no animal victim.   Without recourse, and no matter how much he loved his son,26 Abraham built an altar, bound the boy, drew his knife and prepared to kill him.  I find it incomprehensible that the loving, merciful, compassionate God we hear so much about later in Scripture actually put this pious man and his undoubtedly terror-stricken child through such a cruel experiment.  Yet, the Bible indicates that Yahweh did precisely that, although he stopped Abraham from killing his boy at the last minute and provided another victim in his place.

Many scholars maintain this incident was the means by which God demonstrated to his people that they should no longer practise child sacrifice as some of their neighbours.  But then, he could simply have told Abraham that this was no longer acceptable.

Abraham looked up and there, in a thicket he saw a ram…caught by its horns. He went over and took the ram and sacrificed it as a burnt offering instead of his son. (22:13)

I have a distinct childhood memory of hearing this story and feeling an immediate sympathy for the ram.  I remember saying to the minister of my church, "That wasn’t a real ram, was it?  God made him, didn’t he?"  I just couldn’t accept that this unfortunate animal had to be killed because he was unlucky enough to be caught in some bushes near some cruel "test".  The minister looked at me for a long moment, then said, "I never thought about it that way before.  Perhaps he did." I was terribly pleased and felt a lot better about God.

While the Bible is filled with terrifying images involving animals, it also contains many passages describing ordinary, everyday concern for their welfare.

After (Rebekah) had given him a drink, she said, "I’ll draw water for your camels too, until they have finished drinking." So she quickly emptied her jar into the trough, ran back to the well to draw more water, and drew enough for all his camels. (24:19-20)

First domesticated around 3,000 BCE in Asia, the camel was not a common domestic animal for the average Israelite.  Even though the name has a Semitic origin, it is unlikely these animals accompanied them during their journeys to Egypt or their long sojourn in the desert after the Exodus.  However, the patriarchs owned many of them, as did other key Biblical figures.  Ruminants, they are still used in the mountainous regions of Palestine today, primarily the one-humped variety, the Dromedary (Camelus dromedarius).  Arabs raise a lean version for racing, although the two-humped Bactrian Camel (Camelus bactrianus) was, and still is, the animal best suited for dry land caravans since they can carry enormous loads and cover thirty miles a day heavily laden.

Other nomadic peoples such as the Midianites and Amalekites were neighbours and often bitter enemies of the Israelites and they used camels much more commonly and for good reason.  They have incredible endurance.  Given a long enough stretch of ground, they can easily outrun horses.  They are economical to feed and consume almost any kind of fodder, relishing tough, thorny plants that other domesticated animals ignore.  They also have the capacity to go for great periods of time without water, although they will consume up to twenty-five gallons when they have a chance.  They are also very strong and still earn their epithet "ships of the desert" by navigating great stretches of sand on wide, cushioned feet originally adapted for walking on snow.  The females give up to a gallon and half of excellent milk a day, their dried dung becomes fuel, and their urine is used for washing, including hair, beards and – believe it or not – teeth!

Ceremonially unclean like the Ass, camels were forbidden to the Hebrews as food.  However, in an act of high hypocrisy, they slaughtered them and sold their meat to other peoples without such dietary restrictions, the hair and hides being used for various purposes.

Camels rarely develop strong bonds with humans.  They remain aloof and serve their masters mainly because they are compelled to do so.  Stubborn, dangerous and capable of delivering a vicious bite and a kick that can cripple or kill, camels have also developed a unique form of defence or revenge for ill treatment.   They pick up a mouthful of small stones and gravel, regurgitate, mix their vomit with the stones and spray the resulting, obnoxious substance at whomever they wish to repel.

However momentary, we cannot overlook the fact that the Bible mentions hunting.  In Genesis 10:8-9we are told, "Nimrod was a mighty hunter before the LORD."  This short sentence tells us that at least some of the Hebrews hunted wild animals, that might was considered a laudable quality, and hunting could somehow be done before God, although the phrase meant merely "in full view", "openly" or "without any attempt to conceal."

The second Biblical figure described as a hunter was Esav (Esau), one of the Bible’s oddest characters.  Illiterate, ruthless, redheaded, a "man of the field", he was physically hairy, the meaning of his name.   Yahweh forbade his people to marry outside their tribes, so he was rejected by God for twice marrying non-Israelite, Hittite wives.

Abraham’s son Isaac was Esau’s father.  Little is known of Abraham’s almost-sacrificed son as a mature adult.  We know he worshiped Yahweh as El-Roy, which may mean "God who hears", and, as we discover in this story, had a taste for the flesh of wild animals.  Isaac loved Esau more than his younger, fraternal twin brother Yakov (Jacob), and when he was old, and about to die, he called Esau and said:

"…get your weapons – your quiver and bow – and go out into the open country to hunt some wild game for me.  Prepare me the kind of tasty food I like and bring it to me to eat, so that I may give you my blessing before I die." (27:2-4)

Esau knew how crucial this blessing was to his future. The first-born son became the head of the family on his father’s death and received special deference for that reason.  He also received a double portion of the estate as a birthright.  However, Esau had already sold his birthright to Jacob in an insane moment for a meal of bread and lentil soup, so he couldn’t afford to miss his father’s blessing and probably set out on the hunting trip as quickly as he could.

In those days, a man could bless another, younger son if he chose, giving him the first-born’s position and prominence in the family.  Once uttered, this blessing could never be retracted or undone.  With Esau off hunting, his mother Rivka (Rebekah or Rebecca) schemed to cheat him of the blessing.27 She called Jacob and ordered him to, "Go out to the flock and bring me two choice young goats, so I can prepare some tasty meat for your father, just the way he likes it." (27:9)  This done, and to fool the aged Isaac into believing Jacob was the physically hairy Esau, she covered his hands and neck with goatskins before sending him in to serve his father. The ruse worked. Isaac felt what he thought was his hirsute son, blessed Jacob, and Esau lost his inheritance.

In one of the most unusual of the Genesis stories, the literate, mild and upright Jacob became a servant of his uncle Laban as payment for his wife, Rachel ("ewe") one of Laban’s daughters.  This was a profitable arrangement for Laban, and because his nephew was very effective in caring for his flocks and herds, he asked what he could do to help Jacob achieve something for his own household.   Opportunity was knocking and Jacob proposed a cunning scheme, which probably appeared innocent enough to Laban.

"Let me go through all your flocks today and remove from them every speckled or spotted sheep, every dark-coloured lamb and every spotted or speckled goat. They will be my wages." (30:32)

Jacob also assured Laban he could check the flocks and herds and consider any animal that was not speckled or spotted or dark-coloured stolen.

Laban considered the proposal and agreed, so Jacob promptly removed all the male goats that were streaked or spotted, and all the speckled and spotted female goats that had white on them and all the dark-coloured lambs. Like mother like son, he had an ulterior motive and a plan that was impossible, improbable, and - in the light of modern scientific knowledge - laughable.  He took some branches and created white stripes on them by peeling off the bark in thin strips, exposing the inner wood.   Then he placed these branches in the watering troughs so they would be in front of the animals as they drank.

When the flocks were in heat and came to drink, they mated in front of the branches.  And they bore young that were streaked or speckled or spotted. (30:38-39)

Because of the stripes on the branches?  Surely not!  This biological non-sense could only have produced the desired result if Jacob had the advantage of divine intervention.  However, it is hard to believe that God involved himself in an underhanded scheme unless in retaliation for an earlier scam which Laban had perpetuated on Jacob.28

According to Genesis, whenever the strongest females came into heat, Jacob put the branches into the troughs.  If the females were weak, he took them out.

So the weak animals went to Laban and the strong ones to Jacob. In this way he grew exceedingly prosperous and came to own large flocks, and maidservants and menservants, and camels and donkeys. (30:42-43)

Well, you can’t argue with success. And perhaps he had supernatural help after all.  The apocryphal Testament of Jacob tells us it was Michael29 who blessed Jacob, his wives and his animals, protecting him from both Esau and Laban. "Do not be afraid, Jacob," Michael is quoted. "I am the angel who has been with you from your youth."

When Jacob had accumulated sufficiently large flocks and herds, he put his children and his wives on camels and with his thousands of animals preceding him, set out in a great caravan for his father Isaac’s lands in Canaan.  When Laban came after him, demanding an explanation, Jacob argued long service.  He told his uncle he had exercised exemplary custodial care of his flocks for twenty years.  Needless to say, he failed to tell him about the breeding ruse.

"Your sheep and goats have not miscarried, nor have I eaten rams from your flocks. I did not bring you animals torn by wild beasts; I bore the loss myself." (31:38-39)

Laban accepted Jacob’s explanations and arguments, blessed him and his family and returned home, none the wiser.  Jacob journeyed on to the land of Seir, south of the Dead Sea, to confront the brother he cheated of their father’s blessing who had become the progenitor of the Edomites.  Sending a message ahead to court Esau’s favour and stimulate his greed, Jacob claimed he was bringing him great wealth: two hundred female goats, twenty male goats, two hundred ewes, twenty rams, thirty female camels with their young, forty cows, ten bulls, twenty female and ten male donkeys.   Esau accepted this peace offering and wanted to move immediately, but Jacob refused out of compassion for his animals.

"…I must care for the ewes and the cows that are nursing their young. If they are driven hard just one day, all the animals will die." (33:13)

Ultimately Esau and Jacob became so prosperous they had to move some distance apart. The sparse vegetation they were sharing simply could not support their vast herds and flocks.

Jacob’s prosperity didn’t last.  In a story the Oxford Companion to the Bible calls "a highly artistic and skilled narrative", a great tragedy befell him.  The scheme, engineered by his sons to exploit their brother, Yosef (Joseph) not only cost a goat his life, but an animal was falsely assumed to have killed the young man.

Then they got Joseph’s robe, slaughtered a goat and dipped the robe in the blood. (Jacob) recognized it and said, "This is my son’s robe. Some ferocious animal has devoured him. Joseph has surely been torn to pieces." (37:31 & 33)

But Joseph had not been killed as his father was led to believe.   Ishmaelites (the tribe founded by Abraham’s son, Ishmael) purchased him from his brothers as a slave.  They stripped him of his tunic, gave him a loincloth, flogged him and told him not to run off.  However, the apocryphal Testament of Benjamin tells us one of them made a fatal mistake and when he went away to hide Joseph’s coat, a lion stalked and killed him.  For this reason, the Ishmaelites became nervous about Joseph and sold him to others of their own tribe who were bound for Egypt.

Since animals were the wealth of the Israelites, they were used as payment for all kinds of debts and obligations, even for the services of prostitutes.30   When Judah saw his daughter-in-law Tamar sitting by the roadside, he thought she was a prostitute because she covered her face.  Genesis 38:15-17 tells us that not realizing who she was, he propositioned her.

"Come now, let me sleep with you."

"And what will you give me to sleep with you?" she asked.

"I’ll send you a young goat from my flock," he said.

Tamar didn’t trust him.  She asked for a pledge - his staff, cord and signet ring - until the goat arrived. Judah gave her the pledge, got what he was negotiating for (making her pregnant in the process) then had to ask a friend to deliver the goat to reclaim the items pledged.

It was years later when Joseph’s family heard of him again.   He was not only living in Egypt, but had reached a position where he was highly respected in the household of a prominent priest.  This may have been due, in part, to his character; the apocryphal Testament of Simeon describes him as a good, compassionate and merciful man who had the spirit of God within him. However YHWH had given Joseph a unique skill that would change his life and raise him to an even higher position in Egyptian society.  The Pharaoh Sesostris31 had a bizarre dream, and when he heard about Joseph’s ability to interpret dreams, asked him to explain its meaning.

"I was standing by the Nile, when out of the river there came up seven cows, sleek and fat, and they grazed along the reeds. After them, seven others cows, ugly and gaunt came up out of the Nile and stood beside those on the riverbank. And the cows that were ugly and gaunt ate up the seven sleek, fat cows." (41:1-4) "But even after they ate them, no one could tell they had done so, they looked just as ugly as before." (41:21)

When Joseph heard this dream he announced that the seven well-fed cows were seven years – the seven lean cows another seven years. The supreme God, he said, was using this dream to show Sesostris what he was about to do. Seven years of great abundance would follow, then seven years of famine.

The Egyptian monarch had reason to see something else in this dream.   In his religion, seven cows determined the destiny of a child at birth, all manifestations of the bovine goddess Hathor whose priestesses were the ladies of the royal family.  However, Sesostris didn’t rely on an Egyptian religious interpretation.   He accepted Joseph’s.  In fact he was so impressed with the young Hebrew’s administrative abilities, dream-interpretation skills and plans to counter the famine that he bestowed on him the most important and powerful post in his government – the role of vizier, or viceroy.  Sold by his own brothers into slavery, Joseph had become the leading bureaucrat of the most powerful and influential nation in the world.

Now established and secure, Joseph sent a message to his father, announcing, "God has made me lord of all Egypt.  Come down to me, don’t delay.  You shall live in the region of Goshan and be near me – you, your children and grandchildren, your flocks and herds and all you have." (45:9-10)  In response, the over-joyed Jacob organized a great human/animal caravan and set out for the land of the Nile.  When they reached Egypt, Joseph went to the Pharaoh and told him his father’s household had arrived from Canaan, explaining that these people were shepherds, tended livestock, and would be bringing their flocks and herds with them.

After Joseph was re-united with his father and brothers, he advised them what to say when they were presented to Sesostris.

"When Pharaoh calls you in and asks, ‘What is your occupation?’ answer, ‘Your servants have tended livestock from our boyhood on, just as our fathers did.’ Then you will be allowed to settle in the region of Goshan, for all shepherds are detestable to the Egyptians." (46:33-34)

This last statement is difficult to understand, since the two sacred symbols carried by the Pharaoh to demonstrate his power represented the growing of grain - a flail - and the raising of livestock - a shepherd’s crook.  The title "Shepherd of His People" was given to many Pharaohs and Senwosret I was believed to have been appointed "Shepherd of This Land" by the god Harakti, another name for the Egyptian Falcon deity, Horus.

Understanding that his master’s dream meant mass starvation was inevitable, Joseph built enormous granaries and began to stockpile huge quantities of grain. When the famine occurred and devastated the country, everyone came to him to buy food.  Since they had no money, Joseph agreed to accept the next best thing.   "So they brought their livestock to Joseph, and he gave them food in exchange for their horses, their sheep and goats, their cattle and donkeys." (47:16-17)which added greatly to his power and position.

Later in life, Joseph’s father Jacob called his sons together.   With the wisdom of long life and the gift of prophecy, he predicted what would happen to each of them, in many instances utilizing the literary technique of animal similes.  Among the offspring of the patriarch were great and admirable men like Joseph.  Others, like Simeon and Levi, were murderous and cruel.  These second and third sons of Jacob by Leah, his first wife, had taken revenge on the town of Shechem for the rape of their sister by slaughtering the entire population!

"Simeon and Levi are brothers

their swords are weapons of violence…

they have killed men in their anger

and hamstrung oxen as they pleased. (49:5&6)

The hideous act of hamstringing involves cutting the great tendons at the back of the animal’s hocks just above the heels.  This cripples the animal permanently so he, or she, is unable to walk.  In response to such behaviour their father said, "Cursed be their anger, so fierce, and their fury, so cruel." (49:7)

Judah was not only predatory, but had a care less attitude about the damage he did to the environment and other people’s property. His victims were obliged to accept this treatment. He was too dangerous to challenge.

"You are like a lion’s cub, O Judah;

you return from the prey, my son.

Like a lion he crouches and lies down,

like a lioness – who dares to rouse him?

He will tether his donkey to a vine,

his colt to the choicest branch…" (49:9&11)

According to the apocryphal testament of Judah,32 the man whose name would be given to the "Jews" had a preposterous ego and a penchant for tall tales and, as we will discover, his brother Gad was similarly inclined to exaggeration.

As we already know, the "donkey" was an Ass, and stubbornness one of the species’ principal characteristics.  So it was for another of Jacob’s sons by his first wife, Leah.

"Issichar is a raw-boned donkey

lying down between two saddlebags." (49:14)

Another of Jacob’s sons was a dangerous and cunning threat.

"Dan will be a serpent by the roadside,

a viper along the path,

that bites the horse’s heels that its rider tumbles backwards." (49:17)

This passage probably describes the most dangerous reptile in the Ancient Near East, the Horned Viper or Horned Asp (Cerastes cornutus) a member of the family Viperidae.  Up to half a yard long with a large head, each of this creature’s eyes is protected by a pointed horn.  Mere sight of them terrified horses.  In Egypt they were considered sacred.  Mummified and addressed "Lord of Life" each viper represented the Egyptian supreme deity Amun whose manifestation Amun-Ken-Atef was an ancient, universal snake, the reason the sacred reptiles were buried in his temple.  Although their venom is fatal and can kill a human being in 30 minutes, the Horned Viper is, nevertheless, one of God’s creatures.   He even ordered them to attack his own people.  Extremely alert, they can hide in the sand while waiting for passing prey and, able to dart in any direction, can strike at anything that comes within reach.

Naphtali was Jacob’s gentlest son, very different from his brothers. According to Jacob:

"Naphtali is a doe set free

that bears beautiful fawns." (49:21)

although Benjamin was much like his predatory siblings.

Benjamin is a ravenous wolf,

in the morning he devours the prey…" (49:27)

The terror of sheep and shepherds, the wolf (Canis lupus) was one of the most fearful predators of the Biblical era.  Along with the lion, the leopard and the bear, these pack hunters were classified as "beasts of the fields" – a Biblical symbol of destruction.

When he died, Jacob had at least one son of whom he could be unreservedly proud.  The apocryphal book known as Joseph and Aseneth claims that the Pharaoh of Joseph’s time died at the remarkably advanced age of 109. He left the throne to Joseph who ruled Egypt for 48 years before abdicating in favour of the Pharaoh’s grandson to whom he had acted as surrogate father.  When Joseph himself passed away at 110, the Testament of Simeon tell us his mummified remains were kept in Egypt and placed with the royal treasure.  Perhaps anticipating the plagues that would fall upon their country, the court magicians believed that if the revered vizier’s bones were even taken away, a great plague of darkness and gloom would descend throughout the land.

When the Israelites left Egypt during the Exodus, they took Joseph’s remains with them.  Before they departed, darkness and death covered the land of the Pharaohs.


  1. Amenhotep IV, "Glory of the Sun". 1362-1347 BCE changed his name to Akhen-aton ("Beneficial to Aton") to honour the Aton, a symbolic disk representing the sun god, Ra.
  2. God of the High Place(s) or God of the Mountain(s), a variation of El, the name by which Abraham knew YHWH.
  3. While this idol-maker’s name is associated with the moon god and means "wild goat", it is suspiciously similar to "teraph", an idol.
  4. Synonymous with "Hebrews"
  5. This is the first Biblical reference to love.
  6. This cunning woman was Abraham’s grandniece and became his daughter-in-law when she married his son, Isaac.
  7. On the wedding night when Jacob went to his bride, Rachel, he found himself embracing her elder sister, Leah. He had to work another seven years to raise the bride price for Rachel.
  8. The archangel’s name Micha-El means, "Who is like God?"
  9. Prostitution was common in the Biblical era. Zonah were the common, street variety, but there were also "sacred" prostitutes who served in pagan temples.
  10. Scholars cannot be sure which Pharaoh was king in the time of Joseph. Sesostris, one of the Hyksos kings who reigned in the period 1700-1550 BCE may have been on the throne.
  11. See "The Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs" in the chapter "The Animals’ Apocryphal Writings". The Patriarchs are the 12 sons of Jacob who founded the 12 tribes of Israel.

Copyright, 2001 Ian A. Stuart

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