Review of J. Ebach, Genesis 37–50

Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 9 (2009) - Review

Ebach, Jürgen, Genesis 37–50 (HThK.AT; Freiburg i. Br.: Herder, 2007). Pp. 729. Hardcover. € 100.00. ISBN 978-3-451-26803-8.

Ebach’s massive commentary covers not only the biblical story but (as is usual for commentaries in the HThK.AT series) also its reception history. While this commentary series generally covers the history of reception in rabbinic and medieval interpretation, Ebach also includes adaptations in modern literature like Thomas Mann’s novella Joseph and His Brothers, thus the reception-historical focus offers considerable hermeneutical potential. At the very beginning of his work, Ebach declares his intention to comment on Genesis 37–50 “as the Joseph story,” which means he does not treat chapters 38 or 49 separately. On the other hand Genesis 37–50 “as the Joseph story” is treated in its context between the Patriarch and Exodus stories.

Because there are already several commentaries with detailed observations on textual criticism (cf. Westermann, 1982; Wenham, 1994; Seebass, 2000), Ebach only discusses these questions when he finds them to be of interpretative importance. The translation in his commentary is an adapted version of the Genesis 37–50 translation in the Bibel in gerechter Sprache (Güthersloh: Gütersloher Verlagshaus, 2007), the section for which Ebach was himself responsible. Translations of each pericope are found at the beginning of each section of the commentary, while a translation of the whole appears at the end of the volume. This allows one to read the entire Joseph story in a single sitting and not only section by section. Whereas the opportunity to take in the entire Joseph story in a single reading is a helpful offer, I still wonder whether readers will find this separate translation useful. Since it is quite close to the Bibel in gerechter Sprache; one might just as well read the story there or in another translation.

Every commentary on the Joseph story faces the problem of the contradicting stories about Reuben and Judah in Genesis 37. According to Gen 37:21–24, 28–30 Reuben tries to save Joseph, but his efforts are in vain because the Midianites have already pulled Joseph out of the cistern. On the other hand, verses 25–27 tell us that Judah convinces his brothers to sell Joseph to the Ishmaelites. In classical source theory the contradicting stories of Reuben and Judah were divided into different sources (J and E). However, since classical source theory is disputed in current scholarship, other solutions are also discussed. Ebach refuses to divide the narrative into different sources and instead tries to prove that the final form of the text is an intentional arrangement. According to his reading the Midianites pull Joseph out and sell him to the Ishmaelites without the brothers’ realizing what is going on. Ebach is certainly correct that the final form of the text is a intentional arrangement and not merely the accidental product of the combination of two sources. However, due to his refusal to integrate the probable compositional history into his interpretation of this complex story, the result remains unconvincing.

Although Ebach refers to the monograph by Jörg Lanckau (Der Herr der Träume [AThANT 85; Zurich: TVZ 2006]), he does not support its interpretation of Joseph’s dreams. According to Lanckau all dreams in the Joseph story are fulfilled. Ebach, in contrast, thinks that Joseph’s second dream (Gen 37:9) is corrected as the story unfolds. The differing views result from the interpreters’ divergent dream interpretations. Ebach agrees with the majority of the exegetes that the second dream is an expression of Joseph’s desire to rule over his brothers. Lanckau interprets Joseph’s dreams as only predicting the number of years until he becomes the second most important man in Egypt (13 years) and until he meets his brothers again (22 years). Lankau argues that the heavenly bodies in Joseph’s second dream stand for the number of years: 11 plus 2 and 11 times 2 years respectively. In Ebach’s interpetation the stars stand for the eleven brothers, and sun and moon stand for father and mother. Ebach’s understanding accords with Jacob’s own interpretation in Gen 37:10 in this regard. However, the problem with this view is that Joseph’s mother dies at Benjamin’s birth (Gen 35:16–20). So either Benjamin is not yet born at the time of Joseph’s second dream—in which case the number of the stars (11) is striking because Joseph would only have had ten brothers at the time of his dreams, or Joseph’s mother, Rachel, is already dead (the latter is Ebach’s view). However, if one follows Ebach’s reading, then it is unclear why she should come and bow before Joseph as she is said to do in the scolding of Jacob. A further problem with this interpretation is that the identification of sun, moon, and stars with father, mother, and brothers is without parallel in the ancient Near East. Therefore, I think in this point that Lanckau’s interpretation has better support than Ebach’s.

Due to Ebach’s decision to comment on Genesis 37–50 “as the Joseph story,” Chapter 38 is discussed as part of the story as a whole. However, missing in the interpretation of this chapter is a treatment of Christine Strak’s position (as seen in her dissertation, “Kultprostitution im Alten Testament?” Die Qedeschen der Hebräischen Bibel und das Motiv der Hurerei [OBO 221, Fribourg: Academic Press 2006]). While in the present work the question of the term qdš is discussed only briefly, her important monograph on the subject of the cultic prostitution would certainly have brought valuable perspectives to the interpretation.

The focus of Ebach’s commentary is clearly on the final form of the text. A detailed discussion of the text’s narratology and of its dramatic setting is given in each section of the commentary. Together with many other accurate and useful observations, this approach makes the commentary a helpful instrument for pastoral praxis. In keeping with the tradition of the HThK.AT series, the commentary’s graphic content is first rate. Notwithstanding some critical remarks, this commentary can be warmly recommended.

Christian Metzenthin, University of Zurich