Question: "What are the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs?"
Answer: Beginning in the era between the writing of the Old and New Testaments, various non-canonical writers developed a series of works under assumed names. These are collectively called the pseudepigrapha, since they are clearly not written by their claimed authors. The Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs is part of this genre. The work claims to be the final words of each of Jacob’s sons: the last “testament” of each patriarch of a tribe of Israel.
Researchers believe the main text of the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs was written during the intertestamental period, then heavily edited by Christians through the first and second centuries. Edited or not, the works are most certainly not the product of their supposed authors. This makes the work a useful insight into Judeo-Christian morality of that era, but not a competing text against the actual Bible.
In each section of the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs, one of Jacob’s sons describes the sins and virtues associated with his life. He warns against the former and encourages the latter, then gives a prophetic vision. The overall emphasis in the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs is on ethical behavior, with special emphasis on avoiding the sins most concerning to that speaker. Many of these admonitions point to Joseph as a positive example. The general content of each patriarch’s “testament” is as follows:
Reuben (Lewd Thoughts): In Reuben’s section of the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs, he repents for his incestuous acts with Bilhah (Genesis 35:22). For his sin, the text claims, he suffered for months from a severe disease of the loins, and he spent the rest of his life trying to atone for his actions. Reuben warns against improper thoughts, especially as they pertain to women.
Simeon (Jealousy): Simeon repents for his jealous hatred of his younger brother, Joseph (Genesis 37:19–21). He accepts his imprisonment in Egypt under Joseph’s command as something he deserved. In addition, the text indicates his hand was rendered weak for several months as punishment. Simeon warns against envy, saying it can destroy both the jealous person and the object of the jealousy.
Levi (Priesthood; Arrogance): Levi’s section of the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs is more focused on his ascent to the high priesthood and the sins of his future sons than on his own shortcomings. There are two competing versions of this testament; in one Levi claims his revenge against Shechem (Genesis 34:1–2; 24–26) was facilitated directly by the archangel Michael. Levi warns against the sin of pride, especially that of his descendants who would serve as priests.
Judah (Bravery; Carnality): Judah celebrates his youthful strength and accomplishments. He also repents of several sins committed while supposedly drunk, many involving relationships with women (Genesis 38:1–2, 15–16). His warning advises future generations to avoid lustful thinking and arrogance, but most of all to avoid drunkenness.
Dan (Anger): In the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs, Dan repents of his wrath against his younger brother, Joseph (Genesis 37:19–21). This rage is blamed on a specific evil spirit, Belial. Dan suggests that becoming angry is dangerous and must be avoided.
Naphtali (Natural Good): Naphtali’s portion of the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs shows evidence of heavy editing over time. This makes it more difficult to discern the original author’s intent. Naphtali emphasizes his health, possibly connected to his skill as a runner. His warnings focus on a respect for natural order and the avoidance of becoming overly prideful about what God has given.
Gad (Hate): Gad repents of his passionate hatred for his younger brother Joseph (Genesis 37:19–21). He credits his rage to an incident in which Joseph learned Gad was eating improperly killed meat and informed their father. According to the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs, Gad’s sin brought him a year-long disease of the heart, which nearly killed him. For that reason, Gad likens hatred to a poison that kills the one who hates.
Asher (Truth vs. Error): Asher’s testament has little to say about his own personal conduct. The primary focus of this portion of the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs is the importance of recognizing the difference between truth and falsehood. Once recognized, the two must be carefully and entirely separated. Scholars suggest a large portion of the original writing has been lost.
Issachar (Virtue; Simplicity): Unlike most of the other speakers in the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs, Issachar claims a relatively unblemished, moral life. He credits this, in part, to his contentment with simple living and fulfillment in manual labor (see Genesis 49:14–15). Issachar’s testament leans toward asceticism but mostly seems concerned with pursuing an uncomplicated, satisfied life.
Zebulun (Philanthropy): The only sin Zebulun notes in himself is complying with his brothers in their mistreatment of Joseph (see Genesis 37:19–24). At the same time, the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs implies that Zebulun strongly influenced his brothers’ decision to sell Joseph, rather than killing him. That experience is said to have molded Zebulun into a charity-minded man. His testament features strong encouragement to acts of compassion and examples of how Zebulun has lived this out.
Joseph (Chastity): Joseph’s section in the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs is highly focused on the incident with Potiphar’s wife (Genesis 39), in which he resisted the sexual advances of his master’s spouse. The Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs adds detail to this account, suggesting that Joseph made attempts to convert her to a more righteous life. The text also implies that she resorted to extreme measures, including spell-casting or magic, in an effort to seduce Joseph. In his testament Joseph encourages his descendants to pursue sexual purity as a means to avoid evil. This text contains two sections with obviously different writing styles, leading scholars to suggest it might have been combined from separate, earlier works.
Benjamin (Purity): Benjamin’s testament is mostly an echo of Joseph’s. Benjamin relates Joseph’s merciful, compassionate version of what happened between him and his brothers (Genesis 37:19–21). This serves as a heroic example to Benjamin, who encourages his descendants to always look for the good. He credits Joseph’s ability to avoid sin to his optimistic attitude. As with other segments of the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs, this testament appears to have been heavily edited by later Christian writers.