1 Chronicles 23-25: The Assignments

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I’ve decided to combine chapters 23-25, since they all have to do with David organizing the Temple duties. Technically, I should include chapter 26 as well, since it covers the same ground, but the post is going to be long enough as it is. So I will be lumping those duties in with the military and civil affairs of chapter 27 instead.

To introduce this section, the Chronicler situates it in David’s old age, when he has resigned from power and made Solomon king in his place. Clearly, he has trouble letting go, since here he is dictating all the civil and cultic duties. In fact, much of the following chapters has David scheduling shifts for a Temple that has not yet been built, that will be built after his death. The David of Chronicles has absolutely no faith in Solomon whatsoever.

In any case, he gathers the leaders of his son’s kingdom around him, both secular and religious, to deliver his orders.

The Levites

David begins by numbering the Levites. Now, I might think that David would be a little more hesitant to try that sort of thing again after what happened last time (see 1 Chron. 21), but what do I know?

In any case, he manages to find 38,000 Levites over the age of 30. This age agrees with Num. 4:3, where only men between the ages of 30 and 50 are eligible for Temple service. Things get a bit complicated later on, but we’ll deal with that in the appropriate spot.

Of the 38,000 Levites, David decrees that 24,000 of them will work in the Temple, 6,000 will serve as officers and judges, 4,000 will be gatekeepers, and 4,000 will be musicians.

And this is where things start to get a bit more complicated. There appear to be two lists of Levite chiefs, the first in 1 Chron. 23:7-23, and the second in 1 Chron. 24:20-31. The former is nearly organized into the descendants of Gershom, Kohath, and Merari (the sons of Levi). The latter seems to have attempted the same, but is a complete mess. I’m assuming its been corrupted, and while there are some overlapping names, there are plenty of differences.

In between the two lists, we are told that the priests Zadok and Ahimelech helped David to organize the priests. To me, this suggests that the first list (ch.23) is in the wrong spot. Perhaps an editor realized that the ch.24 list was hopelessly corrupted, and decided to provide a “clean” version, then unfortunately copy+pasted into the wrong spot. We’ve all been there.

The list in 1 Chron. 24:20-31 goes:

  • Shubael, son of Amram;
  • Jehdeiah, son of Shubael;
  • Isshiah, son of Rehabiah;
  • Shelomoth, of the Izharites;
  • Jahath, son of Shelomoth;
  • The sons of Hebron: Jeriah (their chief), Amariah, Jahaziel, and Jekameam;
  • Micah, son of Uzziel;
  • Shamir, son of Micah;
  • Isshiah, brother of Micah;
  • Zechariah, son of Isshiah;
  • Mahli and Mushi, the sons of Merari;
  • Beno, son of Jaaziah;
  • The sons of Merari: Jaaziah, Beno, Shoham, Zaccur, and Ibri;
  • Eleazar, son of Mahli (who had no sons);
  • Jerahmeel, son of Kish;
  • The sons of Mushi: Mahli, Eder, and Jerimoth.

In contrast, the list in 1 Chron. 23 goes:

Gershom

  • The sons of Gershom: Ladan (named Libni in 1 Chron. 6:17) and Shimei;
  • The sons of Ladan: Jehiel (their chief), Zetham, and Joel – in 1 Chron. 6:20, Libni’s son is named Jahath, who fathered Zimmah, who fathered Joah, names that are kinda sorta similar-ish to Jehiel, Zetham, and Joel;
  • The sons of Shimei: Shelomoth, Haziel, and Haran;
  • The additional sons of Shimei: Jahath (their chief), Zina, Jeush, and Beriah (neither Jeush nor Beriah had many sons, so their lineages were merged).

Kohath

  • The sons of Kohath: Amram, Izhar, Hebron, and Uzziel;
  • The sons of Amram: Aaron and Moses;
  • The sons of Moses: Gershom and Eliezer;
  • Shebuel, son of Gershom;
  • Rehabiah, son of Eliezer (the text notes that Rehabiah was Eliezer’s only son, but that he himself had many);
  • Shelomith, son of Izhar;
  • The sons of Hebron: Jeriah (their chief), Amariah, Jahaziel, and Jekameam;
  • The sons of Uzziel: Micah (their chief) and Isshiah.

Aaron’s lineage is presented out of order, sandwiched between the two lists of Levites. We are given only the list of his sons: Nadab, Abihu, Eleazar, and Ithamar. We are reminded that Nadab and Abihu died young (as described in Leviticus 10), and that they had no children.

Merari

  • The sons of Merari: Mahli and Mushi;
  • The sons of Mahli: Eleazar and Kish (here, we are told that Eleazar died without sons, so that his daughters married the sons of Kish; In 1 Chron. 6:29, however, neither of these characters appear, and Mahli has only one son, Libni);
  • The sons of Mushi: Mahli, Eder, and Jeremoth.

Summarizing the list, 1 Chron. 23:24 tells us that these were all the descendants of Levi over the age of 20. Back at the beginning of the chapter, only the men over the age 30 were counted (1 Chron. 23:3). While the age of 30 corresponds with Num. 4:3, Num. 8:24 tells us instead that Levites over the age of 25 are to serve in the Temple. Clearly, there’s a discrepancy here in how old a Levite must be to get the job.

James Bradford Pate offers the suggestion that the work itself would begin at 30, but that training might start earlier.

Another possibility is that the age requirement was lowered over time, and that each number references a source written at a different point in Israel’s history. According to Pate: “Ezra 8:15-20 seems to indicate that post-exilic Israel had difficulty finding Levites; thus, it would make sense that requirements for Levitical service would become a bit looser at that time.” Another possibility is that David anticipated the Temple’s needs would be greater than the needs of the tabernacle, and lowered the age to accommodate the change.

Finishing off the chapter, we hear David’s rationale in ordering the Levites: They are no longer needed for the carrying of the tabernacle, and must thus be organized for their new duties in the Temple.

Assignments

Helping David to organize the other priests are Zadok (descended from Eleazar, son of Aaron) and Ahimelech (descended from Ithamar, Aaron’s other son).

The work is recorded by a scribe named Shemaiah, son of Nethanel – a Levite. According to my New Bible Commentary, “the stress is not so much on his being a Levite, but that he was not the royal scribe” (p.381). I’m not sure why this is important, except perhaps to show that the organizing of the priests was conducted by David, the individual, rather than the crown as a representation of secular authority. From what I’ve gathered, it seems that there was, historically, some tension between the secular and religious authorities, as both tried to use the other to their own ends.

We also learn that the work was witnessed by (perhaps with input from) the king, the secular leaders, Zadok, Ahimelech, and all the chief priests and Levites.

In the counting, it comes out that there are 16 households in Eleazar’s lineage, but only 8 in Ithamar’s lineage, totalling 24. These 24 households were then organized into numbered groups, which would take turns performing the Temple’s duties. The text doesn’t explain this system, apparently presuming pre-existing knowledge, but I gather that each group would serve for about two weeks a year. Such a system would allow the priests to maintain their own affairs, coming in only once a year (plus the big festivals) to tend the Temple. Further, since the lunar months don’t correspond perfectly to the solar year, the season in which each group is on duty would rotate, ensuring that one group isn’t always stuck with, say, service during a major harvest when it would be a pretty big imposition to be away from home.

The lots, in order, fell to the following chiefs:

  1. Jehoiarib;
  2. Jedaiah;
  3. Harim;
  4. Seorim;
  5. Malchijah;
  6. Mijamin;
  7. Hakkoz;
  8. Abijah;
  9. Jeshua;
  10. Shecaniah;
  11. Eliashib;
  12. Jakim;
  13. Huppah;
  14. Jeshebeab;
  15. Bilgah;
  16. Immer;
  17. Hezir;
  18. Happizzez;
  19. Pethahiah;
  20. Jehezkel;
  21. Jachin;
  22. Gamul;
  23. Delaiah;
  24. Maaziah.

Turn Up The Music

The Chronicler has several lists of musicians, including 1 Chron. 6:31-48, 1 Chron. 15:16-24, 1 Chron. 16:4-7 (which mentions only Asaph as the chief musical director), 1 Chron. 16:37-42 (in which Heman and Jeduthun appear together). It goes without saying that there are some pretty major discrepancies (perhaps referring to different points in time).

The main three lineages in charge of the music are the sons of Asaph, Heman, and Jeduthun – who lead as well as father the other leaders among the musicians (and are explicitly placed under the control of the king). Jeduthun, while he appears in 1 Chron. 16:37-42, is elsewhere replaced with Ethan. The instruments they play are the harps, lyres, and cymbals.

The Choristers, by James Tissot, 1896-1900

The Choristers, by James Tissot, 1896-1900

The text makes the connection between music and prophesying explicit throughout this chapter, particularly 1 Chron. 25:1. That bears remembering, and is a delicious clue to the form of worship at the time.

The sons of Asaph are: Zaccur, Joseph, Nethaniah, and Asharelah.

The sons of Jeduthun are in charge of prophesying with lyres in the thanksgivings and praises to God. They are: Gedaliah, Zeri, Jeshaiah, Shimei, Hashabiah, and Mattithiah (the only one I’ve found identified among the lyre players in 1 Chron. 15:21). Incidentally, the text tells us that Jeduthun had six sons in all (1 Chron. 25:3), but the Masoretic Text lists only 5, omitting Shimei.

The sons of Heman are: Bukkiah, Mattaniah, Uzziel, Shebuel, Jerimoth, Hananiah, Hanani, Eliathah, Giddalti, Romamtiezer, Joshbekashah, Mallothi, Hothir, and Mahazioth.

There are few interesting things going on with Heman’s family. The first is that the names of his sons, from Hananiah to Mahazioth, seem to form a pattern. According to my New Bible Commentary, making it work requires “taking the consonantal text and occasionally dividing the words otherwise” (p.381). When this is done, the result is a phrase, which my study Bible translates as: “Be gracious, O Lord, be gracious to me; thou art my God, whom I magnify and exalt, my help when in trouble; I have fulfilled (or spoken), he has increased visions.”

If we assume that this is true and historical, it’s extremely interesting – certainly far more so than something as trite as theme-ing J names, as the Duggars have done. It’s certainly fitting for a man associated with music (and apparently, with the authorship of at least one Psalm – Ps. 88).

But it’s a rather long phrase, and it seems to put an awful lot of faith into being able to complete it. Well, why not? Heman is specifically identified as the king’s seer, and we are told that God had promised to exalt him (in the context of the number of children he had). Perhaps, given that the phrase doesn’t begin until his sixth child, we can deduce when he received this promise from God.

The other interesting thing going on with Heman is that we are told that he had 14 sons and 3 daughters, and that they “were all under the direction of their father in the music in the house of the Lord” (1 Chron. 25:6, emphasis mine). The implication seems to be that the daughters are included in this. In his post about the verse, Claude Mariottini points to other women associated with music, such as Miriam (Exodus 15), Jephthah’s daughter (Judges 11:34), and the women who greet Saul with music (1 Sam. 18:6). This points to some really cool hints of the roles women were allowed to occupy, at least in the tribal period and early monarchy.

The total number of trained musicians is given as 288, compared to the 4,000 in 1 Chron. 23:5. This isn’t a discrepancy if the 288 number refers only to those “trained in singing” (1 Chron. 25:7), while the total number of musicians is actually 4,000.

As with the priests, the musicians are also divided into groups. These are, under Asaph:

  1. Joseph;
  2. Gedaliah (and his 12 brethren and sons);
  3. Zaccur (and his 12 brethren and sons);
  4. Izri (and his 12 brethren and sons);
  5. Nethaniah (and his 12 brethren and sons);
  6. Bukkiah (and his 12 brethren and sons);
  7. Jesharelah (and his 12 brethren and sons);
  8. Jeshaiah(and his 12 brethren and sons);
  9. Mattaniah (and his 12 brethren and sons);
  10. Shimei (and his 12 brethren and sons);
  11. Azarel (and his 12 brethren and sons);
  12. Hashabiah (and his 12 brethren and sons);
  13. Shubael (and his 12 brethren and sons);
  14. Mattithiah (and his 12 brethren and sons);
  15. Jeremoth (and his 12 brethren and sons);
  16. Hananiah (and his 12 brethren and sons);
  17. Joshbekashah (and his 12 brethren and sons);
  18. Hanani (and his 12 brethren and sons);
  19. Mallothi (and his 12 brethren and sons);
  20. Eliathah (and his 12 brethren and sons);
  21. Hothir (and his 12 brethren and sons);
  22. Giddalti (and his 12 brethren and sons);
  23. Mahazioth (and his 12 brethren and sons);
  24. Romamtiezer (and his 12 brethren and sons).

Assuming that Joseph is also accompanied by his 12 brethren and sons (he is the only one for whom this is not specified), and assuming that the leaders are not counted, this total comes out to 288.

Only those musicians under Asaph are listed. It’s possible, especially given the mention of Asaph as the leader of those who invoke God before the ark in 1 Chron. 16:4-7, that Asaph was in charge of the singers, while those under Jeduthun and Heman were charged with instruments only.

1 Chronicles 1-2: The Never-ending List

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They say it’s important to begin a story in media res, start with a bang, start with something that will grip your audience and leave them salivating for more.

The Chronicler took this advice and decided to do the precise opposite. And so we begin 1 Chronicles with what is little more than an incredibly tedious list of names. This isn’t even like Genesis, where at least “the begats” were interspersed with narrative. No, not here. Our very first paragraph is composed of thirteen names and one conjunction. It certainly does set a tone!

There are, of course, many theories as to why the Chronicler should choose to begin this way. My study Bible argues that the genealogies are provided to “make it clear that he [the Chronicler] was dealing with the true Chosen People.” Personally, I liked James Pate’s thought that:

I Chronicles may have genealogies as a way to affirm a societal structure in post-exilic Israel and to connect it with pre-exilic Israel, to tell Israel who she is, and to convey that God is preserving God’s people, notwithstanding the exile.  There were a lot of people-groups that became lost once they went into exile, but I Chronicles may be trying to demonstrate that Israel did not.

In the beginning…

To being our journey, the Chronicler condenses all of Genesis 5 into these names: “Adam, Seth, Enosh; Kenan, Mahalalel, Jared; Enoch, Methuselah, Lamech; Noah, Shem, Ham, and Japheth” (1 Chronicles 1:1-4).

Here, Brant Clements notes that this is first mention of Adam that we’ve seen since Genesis 5:5, and that he will not be mentioned again in the Old Testament. “Adam actually featured more strongly in the New Testament. The ancient Hebrews didn’t put much emphasis on him at all.” It’s a very interesting observation, and clearly an indication of theological evolution. I hope that we get to find out some more about that when we finally reach the New Testament (in, oh, about five years).

Up until Noah, this is a list of generational patriarchs, a direct line from father to son to grandson, and so on. But abruptly, without any indication of change, it presents us with three brothers: Shem, Ham, and Japheth, the sons of Noah.

That’s because it’s with Noah’s sons that we see our first ethnic branching.

The sons of Japheth: According to my study Bible, the sons of Japheth represent Indo-European populations. The section is taken from Genesis 10, and the sons are Gomer, Magog, Madai, Javan, Tubal, Meshech, and Tiras.

In the next generation, the sons of Gomer are Ashkenaz, Diphath (who appears as Riphath in Gen. 10:3), and Togarmah. The sons of Javan are Elishah, Tarshish, Kittim, and Rodanim (who appears as Dodanim in Gen. 10:4).

It’s worth noting that Javan (literally Ionia) represents the Greeks. According to James Pate, the discrepancy between Dodanim (Gen. 10:4) and Rodanim (1 Chron. 1:7) may be due simply to the fact that the “d” and “r” sounds are represented in Hebrew with letters that look similar and may have been confused at some point by some hapless copier. Pate goes on to propose another possibility:

Relying on Mefaresh’s interpretation, which is based on Genesis Rabbah 37:1, the Artscroll says that, when Israel sins, the people-group subjugates Israel and is called the Rodanim, from the Hebrew root r-d-h, which means ruling or oppressing.  If Israel controls the people-group, however, the people-group is called the Dodanim, for it is telling Israel that she is its friend, or dod.

Of course, this presents a number of problems, but it’s certainly an interesting proposition.

The sons of Ham: Ham’s sons are Cush, Egypt, Put, and Canaan. In the next generation, the sons of Cush are Seba, Havilah, Sabta, Raama (here spelled without an ‘h’ at the end, though he has one later in the same verse, as well as in Gen. 10:7), and Sabteca. We are also told that Cush was the father of Nimrod, who “began to be a mighty one in the earth” (1 Chron. 1:10). In the generation after that, we have the sons of Raamah: Sheba and Dedan.

Back up the line to Egypt, his sons were Ludim, Anamim, Lehabim, Naphtuhim, Pathrusim, Casluhim (whom the Chronicler tells us fathered the Philistines), and Caphtorim.

Next comes Canaan, for whom the pretence of personification is dropped. Rather than naming his sons, we are told instead that he was the father of Sidon, Heth, the Jebusites, the Amorites, the Girgashites, the Hivites, the Arkites, the Sinites, the Arvadites, the Zemarites, and the Hamathites.

The sons of Shem: The final son of Noah is the sire of the Semitic group, the population from which Abraham will emerge. The sons of Shem are Elam, Asshur, Arpachshad, Lud, Aram, Uz, Hul, Gether, and Meshech (who appears as Mash in Gen. 10:23). This is either an error or deviates quite a bit from the Genesis 10 version, in which Uz, Hul, Gether, and Mash are the sons of Aram, and the grandsons of Shem.

In the next generation, Arpachshad was the father of Shelah, who in turn was the father of Eber. Eber had two sons: Peleg and Joktan. Joktan was the father of Almodad, Sheleph, Hazarmaveth, Jerah, Hadoram, Uzal, Diklah, Ebal (given as Obal in Gen. 10:28), Abimael, Sheba, Ophir, Havilah, and Jobab.

Father of sand, father of stars

We move next to Abraham, who is descended from Shem by way of Arpachshad, Shelah, Eber, Peleg, Reu, Serug, Nahor, and Terah. This portion is lifted from Genesis 11:10-26. Abraham had two sons: Isaac and Ishmael.

The sons of Ishmael: This section is lifted from Gen. 25:12-16. I’ve always found it an interesting twist that Ishmael should be the first born, yet did not inherit divine attention. We see this motif a great deal in Genesis, of younger sons usurping their older brothers. It would be nice to have an explanation for this, though I suppose it could be as simple as inversion of expectation making for psychologically satisfying (and entertaining) stories. Ishmael, of course, sired the Arabic people.

Ishmael was the father of Nebaioth, Kedar, Adbeel, Mibsam, Mishma, Dumah, Massa, Hadad, Tema, Jetur, Naphish, and Kedemah.

A painting of Abraham's departure, by József Molnár 1849

A painting of Abraham’s departure, by József Molnár 1849

The sons of Keturah: Though 1 Chron. 1:28 implied that Abraham only had Ishmael and Isaac, we know from Gen. 25:1-4 that Abraham remarried after his wife Sarah’s death, a woman named Keturah. Here (1 Chron. 1:32), she is demoted to the status of concubine.

Through her, Abraham was the father of Zimran, Jokshan, Medan, Midian, Ishbak, and Shuah. In the next generation, Jokshan fathered Sheba and Dedan (the same two sons given to Raamah in 1 Chron. 1:9). Jokshan’s brother, Midian, fathered Ephah, Epher, Hanoch, Abida, and Eldaah.

The sons of Isaac: We next move over to Abraham’s son by his first wife, Sarah. Isaac had two sons, Esau and Israel. Esau is the progenitor of the Edomites. Israel was born with the name of Jacob, but received the name Israel after an encounter with the Divine. While Genesis used the two names inconsistently, he is here referred to only as Israel.

Esau’s sons were: Eliphaz, Reuel, Jeush, Jalam, and Korah. In the next generation, Eliphaz fathered Teman, Omar, Zephi (appears as Zepho in Gen. 36:11), Gatam, Kenaz, Timna, and Amalek. Reuel fathered Nahath, Zerah, Shammah, and Mizzah. These are taken from Genesis 36:10-14, where Timna appears as a concubine of Eliphaz, not as his son, and she is the mother of Amalek.

The sons of Seir: We run into a difficulty here, since this is the first mention of a Seir. So where is he meant to fit? My study Bible notes that Seir is “another name for Edom”, referencing Gen. 36:8, and in Gen. 36:20, we learn of a Seir the Horite who lived in Edom. Yet none of this helps to explain how Seir is meant to fit into this genealogy.

In any case, Mystery Seir’s sons are Lotan, Shobal, Zibeon, Anah, Dishon, Ezer, and Dishan. He also had a daughter, named as a full sister of Lotan, by the name of Timna.

In the next generation, Lotan fathered Hori and Homam (appearing as Hemam in Gen. 36:22). Shobal fathered Alian (appearing as Alvan in Gen. 36:23), Manahath, Ebal, Shephi (appearing as Shepho in Gen. 36:23), and Onam. Zibeon fathered Aiah and Anah (he either fathered a daughter by the same name, or there is some confusion – in Gen. 36:2, Zibeon had a daughter named Anah, who married Esau). Anah (Seir’s son, not Zibeon’s) fathered Dishon. And Dishon (again, Seir’s son) fathered Hamran (appearing as Hemdan in Gen. 36:26), Eshban, Ithran, and Cheran. Ezer fathered Bilhan, Zaavan, and Jaakan (appearing as Akan in Gen. 36:27). Dishan fathered Uz and Aran.

The kings of Edom: Before Israel had a king of its own, Edom had plenty. This record may be compared to Gen. 36:31-43. They begin with Bela son of Beor, who ruled from Dinhabah. When he did, Jobab son of Zerah, of Bozrah, took over. After him came Husham, of the lands of the Temanites. Then Hadad son of Bedad, who defeated Midian and ruled from Avith. Then came Samlah of Masrekah. Then Shaul of Rehoboth. Then Baalhanan son of Achbor. Then another Hadad (appearing as Hadar in Gen. 36:39), whose city was Pai (which appears as Pau in Gen. 36:39) and whose wife was Mehetabel daughter of Matred, daughter of Mezahab.

The chiefs of Edom were Timna, Aliah (appearing as Alvah in Gen. 36:40), Jetheth, Oholibamah, Elah, Pinon, Kenaz, Teman, Mibzar, Magdiel, and Iram.

The sons of Israel: These are, of course, our twelve tribes. Israel fathered Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah, Issachar, Zebulun, Dan, Joseph, Benjamin, Naphtali, Gad, and Asher. This is, of course, parallel to Genesis 35:22-26.

Focus on Judah

The next few chapters cover will cover each individual tribe in excruciating detail. But we begin with Judah, who fathered Er, Onan, and Shelah, via Bathshua the Canaanite.

God killed Er for wickedness (and Onan, but not mentioned here), which leads to Judah impregnating Er’s wife, Tamar, himself. This produced two more sons: Perez and Zerah. This rather sordid story can be found in Genesis 38.

In the next generation, Perez fathered Hezron and Hamul (this corresponds to Gen. 46:12). His brother, Zerah, fathered Zimri (appearing as Zabdi in Jos. 7:1), Ethan, Heman, Calcol, and Dara. If several of these names seem familiar, it might be because they appear in 1 Kings 4:31, as the men of great wisdom to which Solomon is favourably compared. Except, of course, that the version in Kings describes them as the sons of Mahol, not Zerah.

We then skip to a Carmi, who fathers Achar. Achar is described as “the troubler of Israel” (1 Chron. 2:7). Carmi’s link to the rest of the genealogy is omitted, and the description of Achar as “the troubler of Israel” suggests a story with which the reader ought to be familiar. One possibility is that Achar is the Achan from Joshua 7, who cursed the Hebrew army by keeping some of the spoils of war. He is identified in Jos. 7:1 as “the son of Carmi, the son of Zabdi, the son of Zerah, from the tribe of Judah.” This would explain his inclusion here. Except, of course, that it completely screws up the timeline of the Hebrews’ sojourn in Egypt.

In very next verse, we return to the explicit relations with Ethan, who fathered Azariah.

The sons of Perez: Back over to the line of Perez, we move down through his son, Hezron, who fathered Jerahmeel, Ram, and Chelubai. Much later, we learn that Hezron, at the age of sixty, married the daughter of Machir (the father of Gilead). Through her, he had a final son named Segub, who fathered Jair. Jair controlled 23 cities in Gilead until Geshur and Aram conquered a bunch of them.

In the next generation, Ram fathered Amminadab, who fathered Nahshon (described here as the “prince of the sons of Judah” – 1 Chron. 2:10). Through Nahshon, we get Salma (who appears as Salmon in Ruth 4:18-22), through whom we get Boaz (the love interest of the book of Ruth), and through him Obed. Then, through Obed, we get Jesse.

The sons of Jesse: Jesse fathered Eliab, Abinadab, Shimea, Nethanel, Raddai, Ozem, and David. Though only these seven sons are listed here, 1 Sam. 16:10-11 and 1 Sam. 17:12 both explicitly state that he had eight (of which David was the youngest).

He also had daughters: Zeruiah and Abigail. Zeruiah gave birth to some rather plot critical characters: Abishai, Joab, and Asahel, who play a fairly important part in 2 Samuel and 1 Kings. Abigail married Jether the Ishmaelite (named Ithra the Israelite in 2 Sam. 17:25), and bore Amasa. It’s interesting that the children of David’s sisters should be worth mentioning, but not those of his brothers.

 

The sons of Jerahmeel: The narrative is jumping around quite a bit, making it difficult to follow. We now bounce back to Jerahmeel, Hezron’s eldest. Jerahmeel is a bit difficult, since he is listed specifically as being a member of the tribe of Judah here, yet 1 Sam. 27:10 and 1 Sam. 30:29 refer to the Jerahmeelites as if they were a separate, non-Israelite, group. To smooth this over, my New Bible Commentary argues that “it is much simpler to suppose that the descendants of Jerahmeel, who in any case were settled in the south of Judea, retained their nomadic habits longer, and so in the days of David were reckoned separately from the rest of Judah” (p.372).

Jerahmeel fathered Ram, Bunah, Oren, Ozem, and Ahijah. In the next generation, Ram fathered Maaz, Jamin, and Eker.

Jerahmeel also had a second wife, Atarah, who bore Onam. Onam fathered Shammai and Jada. Shammai fathered Nadab and Abishur. Abishur married a woman named Abihail, and they had Ahban and Molid. Nadab fathered Seled (who died childless) and Apparim, who fathered Ishi. Ishi fathered Sheshan, who fathered Ahlai.

Despite what I said just above, we are told that Sheshan had no sons (this isn’t necessarily a contradiction, as Ahlai might either have died young or been born after the events I am about to relate). To continue his line, he married his daughter to his Egyptian slave, Jarha, and they had Attai.

Brian Shwimmer (of the University of Manitoba’s Department of Anthropology) addresses this in the broader context of inheritance:

Inheritance by daughters imposed a particular difficulty, which is acknowledged in several biblical passages. After Moses first promulgates the rule (Numbers), he is confronted with a problem: if females inherit land from their fathers they will pass it on to their children and therefore into the patrimony of another tribe or lineage. His solution is to institute a parallel cousin marriage regulation. Thus a woman who inherits from her father is to marry her father’s brother’s son so that property will automatically be retained within the wider patriline. A second mechanism for maintaining the continuity of lineage holdings was to marry inheriting daughters to household slaves. Since these dependants had no partilineages of their own, their children were by default incorporated into their mothers’ lineages. The arrangement of marriages to slaves created a number of segments that originated with female rather than male founders (see I Chronicles 2:34-36 for an example.) This institution directly mirrors a solution to the reverse problem of a daughterless family among the Akan, a matrilineal people of West Africa.

The reference to Numbers, of course, relates to the daughters of Zelophehad, whose story can be found in Numbers 27 and Numbers 36.

Attai fathered Nathan, who fathered Zabad, who fathered Ephlal, who fathered Obed, who fathered Jehu, who fathered Azariah, who fathered Helez, who fathered Eleasah, who fathered Sismai, who fathered Shallum, who fathered Jekamiah, who fathered Elishama.

After all that, we move back up the line to Onam’s second son, Jada, who fathered Jether (who died childless) and Jonathan. Jonathan fathered Peleth and Zaza.

A Tale of Two Calebs

I am moving the two sections about Calebs to the bottom for special treatment. The first originally began with 1 Chron. 2:18. The mention of a Caleb is rather odd. It appears to be yet another sui genesis dynasty. In looking for more information, I am finding that the consensus makes Caleb a variant spelling of Chelubai, making him the son of Hezron, grandson of Perez. Except that that Caleb will be mentioned later on, leaving this one still without explanation.

Whoever he is, this Caleb married a woman named Azubah. The verse (1 Chron. 2:18) is rather difficult to parse out, suggesting that Caleb had sons with both Azubah and Jerioth. My interpretation was that this might refer to an arrangement similar to the one used by Abraham in Genesis 16. My New Bible Commentary, however, argues that “either Jerioth was another name of Azubah, or there is a textual corruption” (p.372). The Commentary goes on to suggest that the original wording might have had Azubah give birth to a daughter, Jerioth, who in turn had the sons who will shortly be listed. In any case, Caleb had the following sons: Jesher, Shobab, and Ardon. After Azubah died, Caleb married Ephrath (later listed as Ephrathah, compare 1 Chron. 2:19 to 1 Chron. 2:24), who gave birth to Hur.

Caleb, who apparently lived up to his name (kelev means “dog”), impregnated his father’s wife, Ephrathah – though he at least waited until his father was dead. Through her, he fathered Ashhur, who fathered Tekoa. (There is no mention of either of them being put to death, which would be required by Leviticus 20:11.)

In the next generation, Hur fathered Uri, and Uri fathered Bezalel. This appears to be the same as Bezaleel, named in Exodus 31:2.

Further down (I’m putting it here for convenience), we will get another section headed: “The sons of Caleb the brother of Jerahmeel” (1 Chron. 2:42). The two genealogies are different, though my New Bible Commentary insists that the names here are meant to supplement the ones above. To me, this suggests that either Caleb was a quasi-mythic figure in a few different spots, each with their own traditions that had to be amalgamated, or there were a few different Calebs that somehow became conflated.

In any case, the Caleb specifically identified as the brother of Jerahmeel fathered Mareshah, who fathered Ziph and Hebron. Hebron fathered Korah, Tappuah, Tekem, and Shema. Shema fathered Raham, who fathered Jorekeam. While Rekem fathered Shammai. Shammai fathered Maon, who fathered Bethzur.

This Caleb also had a concubine named Ephah, who bore Haran, Moza, and Gazez. Haran also fathered a Gazez, though hopefully a different one.

There is another sui genesis patriarch listed among the descendants of Caleb: Jahdai. Jahdai fathered Regem, Jotham, Geshan, Pelet, Ephah, and Shaaph.

Caleb had yet another concubine, this one named Maacah. She bore Sheber and Tirhanah. We are told that she was also the mother of Shaaph (if the same as above, the implications are even more headache-inducing). Shaaph fathered Madmannah and Sheva. Sheva fathered Macbenah, and was the father of Gibea.

Finally, Caleb had a daughter, Achsah. It is on this basis this Caleb is identified with Caleb the Kenizzite, who appears, for example, in Joshua 14:6, and who also had a daughter by the same name (Jos. 15:17). The theory, if I understand it correctly, goes that he may have been an honorary Israelite, perhaps adopted into Hezron’s family.

Adding to the confusion is the fact that several of Caleb’s descendants are also the names of towns. So are we to understand that Caleb (and his lineage) founded those towns? Or that these individuals gave their names to the towns that they founded?

The sons of Hur: I am continuing this out of order, just to keep Hur in the same section as Caleb. Hur was the son of Ephrathah (called Ephrath in 1 Chron. 2:19), Caleb’s second wife. He fathered Shobal (who “fathered” Kiriath-jearim), Salma (who “fathered” Bethlehem), and Hareph (who “fathered” Beth-gader).

Shobal’s sons were Haroeh, and half of Manuhoth. Yeah, I’m scratching my head as well.

The families of Kiriath-jearim were the Ithrites, the Puthites, the Shumathites, and the Mishraites. From these came the Zorathites and the Esthaolites. The families of Bethlehem were the Netophathites, Atrothbethjoab, the Zorites, and half of the Manahathites. The families of the scribes who lived in Jabez were the Tirathites, the Shimeathites, and the Sucathites. These, we are told, were the Kenites who came from Hammath, the father of the house of Rechab.

And now I think I need to go detox my brain for a while.

2 Kings 18-19: God Versus Assyria

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It seems that despite Hoshea’s removal from power and the destruction of Israel as a nation, Hoshea’s son Elah managed to succeed his father. It seems that the political situation in Israel/Samaria is a little more complex than the text has so far indicated.

The narrative turns back toward Judah where, in the third year of Israel’s Elah, Hezekiah came to power. He was 25 years old when he took the crown, and ruled for a total of 29 years. When compared to 2 Kings 16:2 and run a little math, we find that Jezekiah must have been born when his father, Ahaz, was only 11 years old. Hezekiah’s mother was Abi, the daughter of Zechariah.

Hezekiah gets, by far, the best review of all the kings we’ve seen so far (including David since, despite our current author’s nostalgic view, he did not get such a great review while he was the star of the story). God just adored Jezekiah.

What did he do to merit such credit? He finally destroyed those pesky high places, broke pillars, and cut down the Asherah. He also broke Moses’ bronze serpent (made in Numbers 21:6-9) because people had been burning incense to it and calling it Nehushtan.

The position of our author seems rather clear: that the object belonged to Moses and was later worshipped as a symbol (or perhaps an actual deity) in itself. This is rather interesting given that the serpent appears to have been one of the symbols of Baal, and likely a part of the pre-Israelite Canaanite religion. So it seems that this pre-Israelite symbol survived the evolution of the YHWH cult, its pagan associations erased as it is given a compatible origin story, up until this point. Suggesting that perhaps its non-Israelite origins were still known at this point in our narrative, despite the co-existing association to Moses.

He also rebelled against Assyria, and killed many Philistines.

Assyria Ascending

There is a brief nod to the events in Israel, mostly repeating 2 Kings 17:5-6. In the fourth year of Hezekiah and the seventh year of Hoshea, Shalmaneser besieged Samaria, taking it three years later. The Israelites were deported because they had failed to obey God.

This seems to have been included to serve as a contrast as we begin the narrative of Assyria’s attack on Judah, juxtaposing the non-god-fearing Israelites to the (now) god-fearing Judahites under Hezekiah’s leadership.

A decade later, in the fourteenth year of Hezekiah, Assyria comes after Judah. This time, however, it is led by King Sennacherib. The Assyrians seem to have made quite a bit of headway through Judah, conquering “all fortified cities of Judah” (2 Kgs 18:13) – Jerusalem is not explicitly excluded from this description. Hezekiah tells Sennacherib to withdraw, to which Sennacherib responds with a price: 300 talents of silver and 300 talents of gold.

Despite his big talk, Hezekiah is willing to pay, though it means stripping the gold from the doors and pillars of the temple.

Incidentally, it seems that Sennacherib’s own records confirm this interaction (at least in its broad strokes): “He [Sennacherib] claims to have laid siege to 46 walled cities and many villages, to have taken 200,150 people, and to have shut up Hezekiah in Jerusalem ‘as a bird in a cage’. His figure, ‘300 talents of gold, 800 talents of silver, plus many other items’, is in close agreement” (New Bible Commentary, p.362).

From here, the narrative dives straight into what appears to be a description of an active siege on Jerusalem (which, spoilers, ends with Assyria’s retreat). Given that the rest of this narrative is unnecessary if Hezekiah successfully met Sennacherib’s demands, it has been argued that there are actually two conflict events being described: One in which Assyria is paid off, and one in which they are forced to abandon their campaign for reasons that we will discuss later on. There doesn’t appear to be any direct evidence for this “two campaign” theory, but the narrative hardly makes sense otherwise.

My personal feeling here is that Hezekiah paid tribute to Assyria after the initial show of force, but perhaps refused to pay a later tribute, much as Hoshea did in 2 Kings 17. As in Israel’s case, this would have led to Assyria’s retaliation.

Proceeding with this assumption, I will discuss the remainder of the narrative as though it refers to a separate incident.

Assyria’s Return

Assyria’s army is encamped at Lachish (as it was in 2 Kings 18:14, during the “first invasion”). They send three representatives to Jerusalem, here identified as the Tartan, the Rabsaris, and the Rabshakeh (according to the New Bible Commentary, these are the Akkadian terms for ‘second in command,’ a high military official, and probably a civil official, respectively, p.363). From this point onward, the titles are used as if they were given names.

King Hezekiah, artist unknown, 17th cent, located in the choir of Sankta Maria kyrka in Åhus, Sweden

King Hezekiah, artist unknown, 17th cent, located in the choir of Sankta Maria kyrka in Åhus, Sweden

The representatives call out for Hezekiah, but Judah’s king sends three representatives of his own instead: Eliakim son of Hilkiah (who is described as being “over the household,” which I took to mean he was the steward), Shebnah (the secretary), and Joah son of Asaph (the recorder).

The Rabshakeh seems to assume that Judah is relying on Egypt to protect them (again, this is very reminiscent of Hoshea’s rebellion in 2 Kings 17:4). He then asks if Judah would rely on their god when Hezekiah himself has been destroying so many of God’s shrines? It’s hard to determine if this is meant to be a joke about Assyria’s lack of understanding of the Hebrew religion, or if it’s further evidence that the local shrines were very much still an important part of the folk religion. Likely a bit of both.

The Rabshakeh ends with a baiting wager: Assyria will give Judah 2,000 horses if they can produce enough riders for them. The intention of this bait is made clear as Rabshakeh asks how Judah expects to fight off Assyria’s captains when they rely on Egypt for their chariots and cavalry?

These interactions certainly indicate that there was far more to Judah and Israel’s relationship with Egypt than we see explained in our text.

Rabshakeh’s final insult reads more like editorializing, as he declares that it is on behalf of Judah’s own God that they have come – reiterating the punitive nature of Judah’s troubles. It seems unlikely that the Assyrian would have taken this position.

Eliakim, Shebnah, and Joah ask Rabshakeh to speak to them in Aramaic rather than “the language of Judah,” so that the people on the walls – who are apparently within earshot – would not understand. Rabshakeh refuses, saying that his master has sent him to speak to them all, as they are all doomed to eat their own dung and drink their own urine. He does seem like a lovely fellow, no? In any case, this seems like a refusal to acknowledge Hezekiah’s representatives as a special diplomatic class. Rabshakeh is addressing Judah as a whole, he is not there to negotiate.

Isaiah’s Prophecy

There appear to be two separate versions of what happens next:

In the first, Rabshakeh calls out loudly in the language of Judah, telling the Judahites not to be deceived by Hezekiah’s claims that God can save them from Assyria. Assyria has defeated all other gods, and it would be better for the people of Judah to simply surrender now. The words have little effect, however, as the people keep their silence as per Hezekiah’s orders.

Hezekiah rends his clothes and wears sackcloth, and goes into the temple. He also sends Eliakim, Shebna, and the senior priests – all also wearing sackcloth – to seem the prophet Isaiah (yes, that one) to ask him to encourage God to defend his honour after he has been insulted by the Assyrians.

Isaiah reassures Hezekiah’s representatives that they need not fear the Assyrians because God “will put a spirit in him, so that he shall hear a rumor and return to his own land; and I will cause him to fall by the sword in his own land” (2 Kings 19:7).

In the second version, we get a strange detail of Rabshekah hearing that his king has left Lachish to fight against Libnah. When the Assyrian king hears about Tirhakah, the king of Ethiopia, he sends messengers to Hezekiah warning him not to think that God will be able to preserve Judah when all other gods have fallen before Assyria. (The threat is clearly the same one Rabshekah gave earlier).

There’s no explanation of why Sennacherib is fighting Libnah, or what any of this has to do with Tirhakah. It’s all made even more confusing by the fact that, according to my study Bible, Tirhakah was not even the king of Egypt yet (though he was apparently a general first, and that this could be a reference to him in that position instead).

Hezekiah brings the letters to the temple and prays that God would pay attention to Judah’s plight: “Incline thy ear, O Lord, and hear; open thy eyes, O Lord, and see” (2 Kings 19:16). He acknowledges that the Assyrians have defeated the local gods of every other nation they have conquered, but those, insists Hezekiah, were man-made gods, made of wood and stone. They were not like YHWH.

Enter Isaiah, who confirms that God has heard Hezekiah’s prayer. What follows is a lengthy poem that I found rather inaccessible. However, there is a bit about how current events were long planned as a punishment. God ends by giving a sign: The Judahites will eat only what grows of itself this year and the next, but will resume farming in the third year. Those who survive will then “again take root downward, and bear fruit upward” (2 Kings 19:30). This seems to indicate that perhaps there will not be the security to farm, due to attacks and raids, over the next two years.

However, says God via Isaiah, the King of Assyria will never enter Jerusalem, nor shoot arrows into it, nor lay siege to it. Instead, he will be routed because God protects Jerusalem for David’s sake. According to the New Bible Commentary, this part of the prophecy is in conflict with Sennacherib’s own version of the campaign. In it, he mentions a rampart, which would indicate a siege (p.363).

That night, the angel of the lord killed 185,000 people in the Assyrian camp, so that the rest of the soldiers woke in the morning to find the bodies. Because of this, Sennacherib retreated back to Nineveh. At some point after that (the text implies a connection, though it seems that many years had passed), Sennacherib was worshipping in the temple of Nisroch when two of his sons, Adramelech and Sharezer, murdered him and escaped to Ararat. A third son, Esarhaddon, then took the crown.

Brant Clements notes that the Assyrian records make no mention of the loss of 185,000 soldiers, though of course this isn’t exactly proof that it didn’t happen.

However, it is clear that something caused the Assyrians to turn back from Jerusalem. Some interpreters, trusting in the biblical account of the mysterious deaths, suggest a plague in the Assyrian camp. Others point to Sennacherib’s troubled end, suggesting that civil unrest at home forced him to abandon the campaign. Certain among the faithful credit God – as does the text. These aren’t, of course, mutually exclusive explanations.

Genesis 29: Jacob "Goes Into" the Wrong Girl

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In Genesis 27, Jacob played a nasty trick on his father by dressing up like his sibling. This time, true to Trickster tale form, he gets to be the butt of his own (well, Rebekah’s) joke.

We open with Jacob continuing his journey towards Haran, to look for a wife among the daughters of his maternal uncle, Laban. When he finally gets to “the land of the people of the east,” he sees a well with flocks of sheep lying around it. There’s a large stone covering the well, and we’re told that when all the sheep were gathered, the shepherds would roll away the stone to water the sheep and then roll it back.

Son of Nahor

Jacob asks the shepherds if they know “Laban, the son of Nahor” (Gen. 29:5). Of course, we found out in Genesis 24:29 that Laban’s father is Bethuel, and Nahor is his grandfather. It’s possible that “son of” is just a Hebrew way of saying “in the lineage of,” but unfortunately my study bible has no notes on this passage so I’m purely speculating.

Although a quick Google search tells me that many Christians find this passage troublesome as well. I wasn’t able to find any explaining away of the contradiction within about a minute of searching (which usually means that it isn’t a hot topic), but looking at a passage comparison, I see that many Bibles have opted to “correct” the Word of God by changing “son” to “grandson.”

Love at first sight

In any case, the shepherds know Laban and point out his daughter Rachel, who is arriving with her flock of sheep.

Jacob's deal for Rachel by Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld 1851-1860

Jacob’s deal for Rachel by Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld 1851-1860

Jacob is a bit confused by the fact that the sheep are being gathered around the well in the middle of the day, and remarks to the shepherds that it’s a bit early to be bringing them all together. He tells them to simply water their sheep and take them back out to pasture. They explain to him that they can’t water their sheep until everyone has been gathered.

My study bible says that this is an ancient practice to ensure fairness. The stone covering the well is too heavy for any one person to move. Therefore, all shareholders of the well must be present to open up the well. This way, they can make sure that no one takes more than is his due.

In any case, when Rachel approaches, Jacob rolls the stone away from the well and water’s Laban’s flock. He then kisses Rachel, “and wept aloud” (Gen. 29:11). We’re not told that the kiss was mutual. The phrasing is clear, Jacob is the actor, Rachel is the passive recipient. I have no idea why he starts weeping, either, but I imagine he must be quite a sight during sex!

After kissing Rachel, Jacob tells her who he is. Once again, the Bible seems a little iffy on the order of things…

A wedding gone awry

Laban has two daughters. The eldest, Leah, has “weak eyes” (which my study bible notes refers to them “lacking luster” rather than any kind of blindness), while the youngest, Rachel, is beautiful.

After Jacob had stayed with him a month, Laban asks him what he wants as payment for the work he’s been doing. By this time, Jacob is in love with Rachel, so he offers to continue working for seven years, at the end of which he can marry Rachel. In effect, he’s paying his bride price in kind (I’ll neglect to comment, this time, on the morality of paying for a wife as though she were a commodity to be bought).

Laban agrees to the terms because “it is better that I give her to you than that I should give her to any other man” (Gen. 29:19). With that glowing endorsement, Jacob works for seven years.

Ever the romantic, Jacob goes to Laban and says: “Give me my wife that I may go in to her” (Gen. 29:21). Jacob takes a woman he thinks is Rachel and “goes into her,” but wakes up in the morning to find out that it was actually Leah. Ooops!

This is the second time (or third, depending on your reckoning) that someone in the Bible has had accidental sex. Who needs Reality TV?

In any case, Jacob goes to Laban and whines that he’s been given the girl with the “weak eyes” and Laban explains to him that in his culture, the younger daughter doesn’t marry before the elder. Jacob, apparently, hadn’t picked this up in the seven years he’s been there.

But no matter. Now that the eldest is married, Rachel is free to marry. So Laban offers to let Jacob have her in exchange for another seven years of work. Presumably after checking to make sure Laban doesn’t have any other daughters stashed away just in case, Jacob agrees.

Thankfully, he gets to do his seven years of service after his marriage to Rachel, so he gets to “go into” her after waiting only an extra week.

Rivalry between sister-wives

Jacob has little love for Leah. Seeing that she’s “hated” (Gen. 29:31), God makes her pregnant while keeping Rachel barren. After having her first son, Reuben, poor Leah says: “Because the Lord has looked upon my affliction; surely now my husband will love me” (Gen. 29:32).

No such luck, so God gets her pregnant again. Once Simeon is born, Leah says: “Because the Lord has heard that I am hated, he has given me this son also” (Gen. 29:33).

Third time’s the charm? Leah gives birth to Levi and says: “Now this time my husband will be joined to me, because I have borne him three sons” (Gen. 29:34).

Nope, not yet. But she gives up when she bears her fourth son, Judah.

Genesis 28: A Dash of Xenophobia

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Our story actually begins with Genesis 27:46. This is one of those places where the chapter break is really weird. I once heard a story that the person who was dividing the Bible up into chapters and verses was a very busy man and had to travel a lot, so he got some of his work done while on horseback. The weird divisions are there because every so often the horse would bump him and his pen would slip!

So there’s another little “Just So” myth for you.

Xenophobia

Back at the end of Chapter 26, we were told that Esau married two Hittite (that is, Canaanite) women, and that “they made life bitter for Isaac and Rebekah” (Gen. 26:34). I commented at the time that this passage was presented without any context, so that the reader is not told why these women made life “bitter” for their in-laws.

Now we get to find out, and the reason is good ol’ fashioned hatred.

Rebekah goes to Isaac and complains that she’s “weary” of her life because Esau’s married some Hittite women. “If Jacob marries one of the Hittite women such as these, one of the women of the land, what good will my life be to me?” (Gen. 27:46). Bit dramatic, really.

Isaac’s response is to send Jacob back to Rebekah’s homeland, so that he can marry one of Laban’s daughters.

This is clearly from a different tradition than Chapter 27. My guess would be that both communities shared a story in which Jacob was in Haran, so both came up with separate stories to get him there. In Chapter 27, he escapes the wrath of Esau after stealing his blessing. In this one, he’s travelling to find a bride.

Esau overhears that his parents are upset that he’s married Canaanite women, so he takes one of Ishmael’s daughters, Mahalath, as a third wife. At this point, I feel the need to remind everyone once again that traditional/biblical marriage is clearly not between one man and one woman. The people who claim that it is are just talking out of unusual orifices.

Jacob’s dream

Jacob's Dream by William Blake c.1805

Jacob’s Dream by William Blake c.1805

On his way to Haran, Jacob stops for the night. He uses a stone for a pillow and goes to sleep. That night, he dreamed that there was a ladder that reached up to heaven, and he could see the angels of God going up and down on it.

God speaks to Jacob, introducing himself as the god of Abraham and Isaac. He then goes into that incredibly tiresome list of all the stuff he’s going to give to this family (which they’re still waiting for). For those of you keeping score at home, this is the sixth time we’ve heard this promise!  (Chapters 13, 15, 17, 22, and 26.)

When Jacob wakes up, he stands the stone he had been sleeping on and pours oil over it (which makes me think of the Shiva Linga and giggle). With his rock well oiled, he decides to rename the place Bethel. Of course, it was already named Bethel when Abraham was there in Genesis 12:8 and 13:3, but never mind. We’ll humour Jacob.

Amusingly, we’re told that prior to Jacob’s renaming, “the name of the city was Luz” (Gen. 28:19). One can only wonder what the citizens of Luz thought of this weird guy who uses rocks as pillows and tells them that their city’s just been renamed because of a dream he’s had.

There’s certain things that people can only get away with in the Bible.

Anyways, Jacob vows that if God takes care of him, giving him bread to eat and clothes to wear, and gets him back to Beersheba safely, he’ll become his god.We also get the origin of tithing – part of the vow is that Jacob will give a tenth of everything God gives him back to God.

The god of this place

“Surely the Lord is in this place; and I did not know it” (Gen. 28:16).

In ancient times, gods were frequently associated with particular places. A traveller would often worship the local gods rather than his own in the belief that his own were too far away to hear. Rather than simply living in “the sky” like the Abrahamic god, they lived on the tops of certain mountains (Olympus), for example.

But the Abrahamic god is, instead, associated more with a bloodline than a specific place. He has places, of course, such as Mount Sinai, or Bethel. But he lives in the generic “sky.”

I’m not surprised that this form of deity emerged from a semi-nomadic culture – and if we accept the date of the Old Testament’s authorship (or at least, the bulk of its compilation) as being close to the Babylonian Exile, it makes even more sense. A people severed from their land doesn’t get much value from a deity who is overly location-specific. The Abrahamic god has to be able to travel.

Genesis 27: The Hebrew Trickster

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The Trickster is a staple of mythic traditions. Famous ones include Coyote, Raven, Weesakayjack and others among Native American groups, Loki in Northern Europe, Reynard in France, Hermes in Ancient Greece, or even the more modern Brer Rabbit in the Southern US. The Trickster is a male (always male) figure who, as the name suggests, plays tricks.

Trickster tales tend to be bawdy, outrageous, and extremely funny. The Trickster is morally ambiguous, sometimes working to the benefit of humans and sometimes to their detriment. He is also ambiguous in form, a shapeshifter. He may disguise himself as an animal or as a different person. Either way, his identity is rather fluid.

One of my favourite aspects of the Trickster is that he’s frequently the butt of his own jokes, concocting overly elaborate schemes that backfire badly.

Chapter 27 is a classic Trickster tale, set in a Hebrew milieu.

The Favoured Son

We found out in Chapter 25 that Isaac prefers his eldest son, Esau, because he hunts and brings home the noms. So now, in his old age and going blind, he asks Esau to go hunting so that he can have his favourite foods. In exchange, Isaac will give him a blessing.

Rebekah overhears this and decides to trick Isaac so that he blesses her favourite son, Jacob, instead. She tells Jacob to go out back and kill some goats, which she then prepares into Isaac’s favourite dishes. He’s blind, so he won’t be able to see which kid he’s blessing, but he still has his other senses. To complete the subterfuge, they dress Jacob in Esau’s clothing and tie some goat skin to the backs of his hands and neck (remember, Esau is the hairy brother).

Esau? Is that really you?

Disguised as his brother, Jacob takes the meal to Isaac. When Jacob presents the food, however, Isaac becomes suspicious and asks him how he found it so quickly. Hilariously, Jacob replies that it’s “because the Lord your God granted me success” (Gen. 27:20).

Isaac Rejecting Esau by Giotto di Bondone, 1290

Isaac Rejecting Esau by Giotto di Bondone, 1290

This is a classic Trickster line. On the obvious reading, it’s clearly a lie. He’s not Esau, the meat isn’t game, and the Lord most certainly did not grant him hunting success. However, the hidden meaning is that God is on Jacob’s side, as the listener (who has likely heard other tales of Jacob) probably knows.

But Isaac isn’t convinced by this explanation. So he calls Jacob to him so that he can touch him, to make sure that he’s as hairy as Esau. When he touches Jacob, he feels the goat skins. “The voice is Jacob’s voice, but the hands are the hands of Esau” (Gen. 27:22). He then asks Jacob to kiss him and, while they’re kissing, gets in a sniff to confirm that he smells like Esau too (remember, Jacob is wearing Esau’s clothing).

Finally, Isaac is convinced that Jacob is Esau and he gives his blessing. “May God give you of the dew of heaven, and of the fatness of the earth…” yadda yadda (Gen. 27:28).

Esau returns

With the blessing received, Jacob leaves the room just as Esau comes in with his meal. Esau approaches Isaac and offers up the food he’s just prepared and it doesn’t take long before they work out what’s happened.

Esau is in anguish and he begs his father to bless him as well. But that’s not how it works, because Jacob “came with guild, and he has taken away your blessing” (Gen. 27:35). And, because Isaac has already given away his only blessing, he gives Esau something that looks a whole lot more like a curse instead: “Behold, away from the fatness of the earth shall your dwelling me, and away from the dew of heaven on high. By your sword you shall live, and you shall serve your brother” (Gen. 27:39-40).

Esau vows to kill Jacob as soon as Isaac dies and, once again, Rebekah McEavesdroppy overhears. She tells Jacob to flee to Laban, her brother, until Esau cools his jets.

How do blessings work?

As a Trickster tale, this chapter works well. Trickster tales are often funny and light-hearted, and they don’t always make perfect sense. The idea that a blessing is a tangible thing to be possessed and fought over works well in a mythic context. The fact that the audience knows that a father can give multiple blessings, one or more to each of his children, just makes the fact that Isaac can’t all the more funny.

But the status of the Bible for many Christians (and Jews?) must somber our reading. The fact is that there’s a whole lot of people out there who view the Bible as the literal historical truth, and even more who view it as a moral guide.

If we’re to interpret it in light of this, the story goes from humorously ridiculous to just plain ridiculous. Isaac’s blessing was clearly intended for Esau – does God not realize this? Can God’s favour be evoked by magic incantation, to be bestowed or stolen according to human will rather than God’s? Or, if God likes Jacob best and wanted him to be blessed, making this whole episode part of his divine plan, why couldn’t he have just bypassed Isaac and blessed Jacob himself? What do we learn about the nature of God from this chapter?

And then there’s the “Good Book” set of questions: Is it right to lie and steal? Jacob is rewarded for his efforts, and nowhere are we told that there is anything wrong with his methods. Read morally, the interpretation is clear: the ends justify the means. And what about Isaac? Is it right for him to bless only one child, cursing the other? Is it right for him to bless one child by making him “lord over your brothers” so that “your mother’s sons bow down to you” (Gen. 27:29)?

This is the second time in this book that a father has cursed his own son, making him the slave of another. God remains silent.

I’m going to stop here even though there’s a bit more to the chapter. The break is in a weird place, so we get a portion of Chapter 28’s story at the tail end of Chapter 27. I’ll just cover it next time instead.

Genesis 11: The Tower of Babel

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The first half of Chapter 11 tells the story of the Tower of Babel (in a form much truncated from the one I received in Sunday school!), while the second half jumps back into genealogies. Yay.

The Tower

“Now the whole earth had one language and few words” (Gen. 11:1). I’m having trouble harmonizing the first line of this chapter with:

  • “These are the sons of Japheth in their lands, each with his own language, by their families, in their nations” (Gen. 10:5).
  • “These are the sons of Ham, by their families, their languages, their lands, and their nations” (Gen. 10:20).
  • “These are the sons of Shem, by their families, their languages, their lands, and their nations” (Gen. 10:31).

I wondered about the timing of events and whether it might be possible to reconcile Chapter 10 with Chapter 11 by assuming that we’ve gone back in time to before the descendants of the three brothers acquired their various languages. Possible. But then my study bible came around and knocked that theory out of the water: “This tradition is clearly independent of and different from the table of nations.”

Nimrod supervising the construction of the Tower of Babel by master of Jacques d'Armagnac c.1477

Nimrod supervising the construction of the Tower of Babel by master of Jacques d’Armagnac c.1477

In any case, humans in the land of Shinar invent bricks and mortar and decide to build themselves a city, “and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth” (Gen. 11:4). At the risk of relying too heavily on my study bible’s notes, it says that: “in the eyes of nomads Mesopotamian city culture was characterized by the ziggurat, a pyramidal temple tower whose summit was believed to be the gateway to heaven.”

I just want to point out that we’ve only seen somewhere between one and six generations since the entire world population was reduced to eight people. The idea that we have a need to start building cities, as opposed to hamlets or, depending on fecundity, villages is rather silly. But a city they build, and God comes down to see it.

At this point, the typical Sunday School interpretation is that God doesn’t like the tower because it displays hubris. The people were building a tower to reach heaven (and, if I remember my own childhood instruction correctly, trying to get into heaven without having to be good on earth), they were trying to position themselves as gods. This is what warranted punishment.

But I don’t see this reading in the text itself. God tells us why he doesn’t like the tower: “Behold, they are one people, and they have all one language; and this is only the beginning of what they will do; and nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them” (Gen. 11:6). In other words, God is worried that humanity – when able to work together – may become too powerful. God doesn’t want us working together to accomplish our goals. He wants miscommunication, he wants confusion, he wants factioning.

There’s a lesson for us here: we can accomplish anything if we’re willing to work together. But the Bible doesn’t want empowered people. It wants us to be ignorant and subservient, awed by the power of a God whose might we can collectively match. This God is a jealous god.

Is pettiness really an acceptable trait for the recipient of worship?

Moving on, God confuses their language and “scattered them abroad from there over the face of all the earth” (Gen. 11:9). Once again, “all the earth” refers only to the regions in or around the Middle East, and we’re only talking about, at most, the number of people that can be produced in six generations. If the incest forced by the Adam & Eve and Noah bottlenecks wasn’t enough, we’ve now split up an already very small number of people. Excellent.

Ebonmuse has a great post up on Daylight Atheism dealing with the Tower of Babel story.

The Sons of Shem

Getting sick of genealogies yet? We still have a long way to go…

  • Shem: 100 when Arphaxad is born, 600 at death.
  • Arphaxad: 35 when Shelah is born, 438 at death.
  • Shelah: 30 when Eber is born, 433 at death.
  • Eber: 34 when Peleg is born, 464 at death.
  • Peleg: 30 when Reu is born, 239 at death.
  • Reu: 32 when Serug is born, 239 at death.
  • Serug: 30 when Nahor is born, 230 at death.
  • Nahor: 29 when Terah is born, 148 at death.
  • Terah: 70 when Abram, Nahor, and Haran are born (triplets?), 205 at death.
  • Haran: Father of Lot, Milcah, and Iscah.

I found it interesting that both Arphaxad and Shelah lived exactly 403 years after the birth of their respective named sons. After them, Eber lived for 430 years after the birth of his son. And look at all those repetitions of the number 30! I also like how many of the ages in the genealogies are in multiples of five – which is precisely what I would think of if I were making up a bunch of numbers.

The Migration of Terah

Haran dies young, while his father is still alive. To break up the sausage-fest a bit, we finally get some women in this story. Abram marries Sarai and Nahor marries Milcah (his niece). Sarai, of course, is barren (because nothing could possibly be wrong with Abram’s equipment, I’m sure).

Terah, Abram, Lot, and Sarai all leave Ur (“of the Chaldeans”) and head for Canaan. On their way, they come to Haran (not to be confused with Haran the deceased son) and decide to settle there. Terah dies in Haran. Incidentally, my study bible says that “the migration from Mesopotamia into Canaan was a phase of population movements in the early part of the second millennium B.C., occasioned by the influx of Amorites from the Arabian desert.”