April 28: Genesis 41:38

Genesis 41:38, etc

In the previous note, we saw how the spirit/breath (j^Wr) of God, more than simply giving life to human beings, is also the source for the wisdom and understanding within the person. This wisdom is available to all, as part of the way humankind was created (by God), though many people do not hear or listen to its voice. At the same time, certain people are uniquely or specially gifted with certain kinds of wisdom and ability. In the ancient world, such gifted individuals were seen as possessing a special divine presence or “spirit” (our term genius reflects its origins in the ancient concept of an indwelling deity). Israelite and Old Testament tradition followed this ancient way of thinking, ascribing the special talent and insight of certain individuals to the spirit of God (El-Yahweh).

There are a number of such references in the Old Testament Scriptures, beginning with the Pentateuch. Regardless of when the final form of the books were actually composed, there is no reason to doubt that these references reflect genuine historical tradition and the most ancient way of thinking (i.e. going back to the time of the Patriarchs).

Genesis 41:38

In response to Joseph’s interpretation of Pharaoh’s dreams, and the prospect of an impending famine-crisis, the decision was made to appoint a special overseer to manage the crisis (vv. 33ff). It was to be a man discerning (/obn`, i.e. possessing discernment) and wise (<k*j*). The Pharaoh realized that there was no one better qualified than Joseph, as he declares in verse 38:

“Can there be found (anyone) like this man [i.e. Joseph], wh(o has the) spirit [j^Wr] of (the) Mightiest [<yh!ýa$] in him?”

Joseph’s ability to know the meaning of Pharaoh’s dream was proof of his wisdom/discernment (v. 39). The main point here, however, is that such wisdom is an indication of God’s spirit at work in Joseph, much as Elihu declared that the wisdom/understanding available to human beings has its source in the spirit/breath of God (Job 32:8, cf. the previous note).

I have translated <yh!ýa$ above in accordance with the basic usage in Scripture. However, it is worth pointing out here that it is a plural form, which, as a substantive, would literally mean something like “mighty (one)s”, more or less equivalent to the simpler plural <yl!a@. There has always been some difficulty explaining the use of this plural in a monotheistic setting, to refer to the one God (El-Yahweh). In my view, the best explanation is that the word serves as an intensive plural—i.e., “mightiest (one)”—and so I typically translate in these notes and articles (as opposed to blandly rendering it as “God”). Yet, if we accept the authenticity of tradition recorded here, it is possible that the Egyptian Pharaoh would have had a true plural in mind (i.e. Mighty Ones, “gods”). The parallel in Dan 5:14, where Belshazzar makes a similar statement regarding Daniel (in Aramaic), would tend to confirm this: “I have heard about you that (the) spirit [j^Wr] of the Mighty Ones [/yh!l*a$, i.e. “gods”] (is) in you”.

For more on the meaning and significance of the related titles la@ (‘El) and <yh!ýa$ (‘Elohim), cf. my earlier articles indicated by the links here.

Exodus 31:3; 35:31

Such special wisdom and knowledge can be demonstrated in other ways, and these no less reflect the working of God’s j^Wr. It can apply to persons with considerable gifts and talents in areas of art and science, for example. We see this expressed in the case of Bezalel, a craftsman and artisan, who was appointed (along with at least one other man) to design the Tent-shrine (Tabernacle) and its furnishings (Exodus 31:1ff). The divine source of this ability is clearly stated in verse 3:

“And I have filled him (with the) spirit [j^Wr] of (the) Mightiest—with wisdom, and with discernment, and with knowledge, and with all (the) work [hK*al*m=] (he is to do)”

The common word hK*al*m= is a bit difficult to translate in English. It means something like “business”, i.e. the work a person is expected to do. Sometimes the word connotes the skill or ability required to perform such duties. The first three terms—wisdom, discernment, knowledge—show one side of this ability, while hK*al*m= signifies the working out of it in practice, in the actual business of his craft. Interestingly, it is YHWH who is speaking, and yet the expression “spirit of the Mightiest [i.e. of God]” is still used (rather that “my Spirit”), indicating how fundamental it was to the idea involved.

This same declaration regarding Bezalel is repeated, this time by Moses, in 35:31:

“And He [i.e. YHWH] (has) filled him (with the) spirit [j^Wr] of the Mightiest…”

In using the word inspiration, we tend to think strictly in terms of the composition of the Scriptures, or in the related sense of inspired prophecy (within the context of Scripture). However, these passages we have examined thus far demonstrate that the concept of divine inspiration cannot—and should not—be limited in this way. In the next daily note, we will turn to the idea of the “prophet” —that is, the ayb!n`, one who serves a position of leadership, a spokesperson for God in relation to His people.

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