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Shemot/Exodus 1:6 And Yosef died, and all his brothers and all that generation.
It was absolutely inevitable; it simply happened as a matter of course. Yosef died. Although the Torah tells us that "Yosef lived one hundred and ten years" (B'resheet 50:22, NJPS), he had no illusions about his own mortality. He summoned his brothers1 and told them, "I am about to die. G-d will surely take notice of you and bring you up from this land to the land that He promised on oath to Avraham, to Yitz'khak, and to Ya'akov" (v. 24, NJPS). Yosef reminded his brothers ofHaShem's promise to return the family back to the Land that He had given them and extracts an oath from them that, "When G-d has taken notice of you, you shall carry up my bones from here" (v. 25, NJPS). The verb at the start of the verse - the Qal 3ms prefix form of the root , to die, in a vav-conversive construction to render it a past tense narrative event - is singular: Yosef died. But then the text expands the list: all his brothers died. In fact, the whole generation died. It is at that point that the classic Jewish commentators jump in and want to know just what " all that generation" means.
TheRashbam is very clear: "all that generation" means simply and literally the seventy people who had come down to Egypt. These are the people explicitly named, counted and listed in B'resheet 48:8-27 and (in less detail) in the immediately preceding verses, Shemot 1:1-5. Although there are both fathers and sons in the first list, they are considered a generation because their lives overlapped and they were the only ones who actually remembered living in the Land. At this point, physical memory had transitioned into social narrative memory; people talked about the Land and what living there was like in their father's or grandfather's day. The memory was no longer carried in the minds of individual people, but by the community, by the people as a whole, in the stories they told and related to each other and to their children. Jan Assmann writes that this process of transition from what he calls "communicative memory" to "collective memory" takes around forty years.2 It is complete once the community has taken over and remembered the stories and events actually experienced by now-dead individuals in the past. Sometimes, collective memory lasts only a few generations; other collective memories endure for thousands of years. Such collective memories are almost always stylised and abbreviated, presenting what is in fact an incomplete historical narrative, but focussing on the critical points of the story in a ritualistic narrative that become familiar through repeated episodes of telling.
Ibn Ezra, on the other hand, suggests an alternative: "Since the text has already mentioned the death of Yosef and all his brothers, this phrase must mean 'all the Egyptians of that generation.' This is proven by the fact that the Pharaoh 'did not know Yosef' (Shemot 1:8)." A biblical generation, he insists, "is a genealogical reference (i.e. father and son are two generations); it does not indicate a period of time." The Ralbag supports this idea, making the point that "had any at all of the Egyptians who knew Yosef still been alive, the new Pharaoh would not have been able to do what he did." The early rabbis agree upon the collective effect, but disagree over who the "generation" included, giving as their opinion that "this teaches that as long as one of those who originally went down into Egypt was alive, the Egyptians did not subject Israel to slavery" (Shemot Rabbah 1:6). Nahum Sarna says the same thing, only the other way round: "The immigrant generation had wholly died out by the time the oppression began, but we are not told how long this took."
TheSforno will have none of that. He agrees with the Rashbam - the seventy souls that came down to Egypt - adding the slightly surprising comment that "that generation did not become (totally) degraded or demeaned all the days of their life." His modern translator and commentator, Rabbi Raphael Pelcovitz explains that "A spirit of piety and sanctity permeated them all and they remained steadfast in their unique way of life, unaffected by the alien environment." This demonstrates how the rabbinic collective memory has stylised the characters of the seventy, far beyond the original text, in typical rabbinic style by glossing the patriarchs and early tribal leaders to a high state of holiness and perfection in way that actually seems quite contrary to the biblical narrative when considering, for example, the content of Ya'akov's death-bed blessings over his sons. Umberto Cassuto, a modern though last generation Jewish commentator shows the same tendency to gloss in his thoughts concerning the death of that generation: "yet the life of the family did not cease but expanded. In the course of time, in the tranquil period of which the Bible does not speak in detail, behind the enveloping mist that conceals the history of the passing generations, the family, by Divine grace, grew larger and spread abroad. The ancient blessing upon the macrocosm, 'Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth,' (B'resheet 1:28, 9:1) which G-d had uttered to Adam and Noah, and which was confirmed in particular to Avraham, the father of the microcosm (17:2-6), was completely fulfilled, in overflowing measure, in the descendants of Israel in Egypt."3 Cassuto spins together past words and memories from apparently not-connected events to create a pointer to G-d's over-arching meta-narrative.
Referring to the past, both characters and events, is a way of connecting together threads of narrative that the biblical authors often use. It provides anchor points and proof-texts that demonstrate continuity and intentionality: things haven't happened by mistake, but by the will and purpose of G-d who overrules human events and decisions to bring about His plans both with and despite the human actors who act as His agents in the unfolding of history. Physical death may be a way to draw someone's life to a close, but it doesn't close their mouth. If anything, it makes their known words more available for telling stories and creating narrative.
So how do we remember? How do we gain purchase or traction in the world today by remembering and retelling the past? The apostle Peter made such a connection during his Pentecost morning sermon after the outpouring of the Spirit in Jerusalem at the festival of Shavuot. After quoting from Psalm 16, explicitly attributed in the text to King David, Peter says, "Brothers, I may say to you with confidence about the patriarch David that he both died and was buried, and his tomb is with us to this day" (Acts 2:29, ESV). As with Yosef and that generation, David is dead; quite dead. And buried. This is what happened to everyone. Even Lazarus, who had been raised to life by Yeshua after four days in the tomb, would die. Yet David's words appear to be alive in Peter's hands as he is used to provide a proof-text for the resurrection: "Being therefore a prophet, and knowing that G-d had sworn with an oath to him that He would set one of his descendants on his throne, he foresaw and spoke about the resurrection of the Messiah, that He was not abandoned to Hades, nor did His flesh see corruption" (vv. 30-31, ESV); the last being an adaptation of the rather coyly translated, "For You will not abandon me to Sheol, or let Your faithful one see the Pit" (Psalm 16:10, NJPS), given a little more application-related top spin as: "For You will not leave my soul among the dead or allow Your holy one to rot in the grave" (NLT). Even though David died long ago, his words are still speaking, although in a way that perhaps he himself never envisaged, to validate the resurrection of Yeshua, King David's greater Son.
The birth narratives in Matthew's and Luke's gospels are another demonstration of the way collective memory has preserved the past. Although the two narratives might almost seem to be talking about two completely different events - one featuring magi from the east turning up some while after the birth, the wicked king Herod and a long time, perhaps several years, of exile in Egypt; the other, shepherds ushered in by a host of angels on the same night as the delivery after the Roman Emperor engineered the birthplace, followed by ritual fulfillment at the Temple - of which neither other narrative seems to be aware, they are actually talking about the same event, rooted in prophecies given in the Tanakh and clearly linked by Joseph and Mary, Bethlehem, angels, dreams and visions and - of course - the deliberate intention of G-d breaking into this world. Rather than weaken our faith by their differences, we should allow the incredible way both narratives have been preserved alongside each other - different, yet so unmistakably the same - to encourage us when we see proven memory theories being worked out in practice!
1. - The text is unclear whether this means that Yosef was the first of Ya'akov's sons to die, so that he summoned his eleven blood brothers, or whether he summoned "his brothers" figuratively speaking, meaning the current heads of each of the twelve families, whether a surviving brother, a nephew or great nephew.
2. - Jan Assmann, Religion and Cultural Memory, translated by Rodney Livingstone, Stanford University Press, 2006.
3. - Umberto Cassuto, A Commentary on the Book of Exodus, Magnes Press, Jerusalem, 1983, 965-223-456-7
Further Study: John 21:24-25; 1 Coronthians 10:11-12; Revelation 3:20-22
Application: Have you become a little jaded by the endless accusations of fraud, jerrymandering or plain incompetence levelled at the Bible? Perhaps it is time to look at the text again in the light of social memory theory and see the ways in which it affirms and reinforces what we read to show us G-d at work in both the original events and the faithful transmission of His story for us today.
© Jonathan Allen, 2017
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