Joshua 13-21: Land allotments, oh my!

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Always a bit of a Debbie Downer, God begins by telling Joshua that he’s getting old and that there is still much land to be conquered. He then proceeds to list these lands in Josh. 13:2-6.

The narrator follows up by describing the boundaries of the land under Israelite control on the east side of the Jordan, reminding us once more about how Moses defeated King Og and King Sihon (will he ever stop going on about that?). We are told that the Israelites had failed to drive out the Geshurites and Maacathites, who still live within Israel “to this day” (Josh. 13:13).

The actual allocation sections are a little scattered, so I’ll deal with the content out of order. In Josh. 18, Joshua tells the tribes who still require lands to each send out three men to scout the land and write descriptions of it. When they return, Joshua will use a lottery system to divide it among the tribes. This all takes place at Shiloh.

ChariotsBecause the place names are extremely boring, I will just list verse references plus any detail that happens to attract my interest. Here are the tribal allocations:

Judah: Josh. 15:1-12, 20-63. Though God had promised to Joshua that no one would be able to stand against him (Josh. 1:5), the people of Judah were not able to drive out the Jebusites, who were the people living in Jerusalem. Because of this, “the Jebusites live with the people of Judah in Jerusalem to this day” (Josh. 15:63).

Reuben: Josh. 13:15-23.  Amid the listing of territories, we are reminded that the Israelites killed Balaam, “who practiced divination” (Josh. 13:22). This was, if you remember, a totally awkward twist from Numbers 31

Gad: Josh. 13:24-28. In Josh. 13:27, we are told that Gad gets “the rest of the kingdom of King Sihon. This conflicts with Josh. 13:21, where we are told that Reuben is to receive “all the kingdom of King Sihon.” The biblical penchant for exaggeration is all well and good, but probably a terrible idea when relating tribal land allocations…

Manasseh (eastern half/Machir): Josh. 13:29-31, 17:3-6. In Josh. 17, we are reminded of Zelophehad’s daughters – Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah – who are to receive an inheritance in their own right. Here, the women are given their lands.

Manasseh (western half): Josh. 17:7-13. Once more, the Israelites are unable to kill off all the native inhabitants, so that the Manassites have to wait until they strong enough to enslave the Canaanites.

Ephraim: Josh. 16:1-10. Once again, we are told that they were unable to drive some people out – the Canaanites of Gezer remain and, we are told, have been enslaved.

Benjamin: Josh. 18:11-26.

Simeon: Josh. 19:1-9. Though the apportioning of land was supposed to have been fair, for some reason Joseph had given too much to Judah. So when he gets to Simeon, he doesn’t have enough territory to give and has to carve pieces out from Judah and give them over. Mastermind Joshua strikes again. You’d think he’d have planned ahead a little…

Zebulun: Josh. 19:10-16.

Issachar: Josh. 19:17-23. Excavations began on what is believed to be Anaharath, one of Issachar’s towns, somewhat recently!

Asher: Josh. 19:24-31.

Naphtali: Josh. 19:32-39.

Dan: Josh. 19:40-48. We are told that Dan took land from Leshem, renaming it “Dan” after their ancestor. Unfortunately, they are given Zorah and Eshtaol, which had already been given to Judah back in Josh. 15:33. Poor Joshua just cannot wrap his head around how this stuff works…

Levi: Josh. 21:1-45. Though they get no territory per se, the Levites do get cities, as well as a little pasture land. A portion of the Kohathites are given thirteen towns from Judah, Simeon, and Benjamin. The rest of the Kohathites get ten towns from Ephraim, Dan, and Manasseh. The Gershonites get thirteen towns from Issachar, Asher, Naphtali, and Manasseh. The Merarites get twelve towns from Reuben, Gad, and Zebulun. We are told that Caleb had been given the fields and villages of one of the towns now being given to the Levites.

Caleb and Joshua

Caleb: Josh. 14:6-15, 15:13-19. You’ll remember Caleb has the scout who (with or without Joshua) stood against the other scouts in their position that the Israelites should not rush into the Promised Land. I can’t recall if Moses promised him his own land as a reward at the time, but the text here says that he did. And so, while Joshua is drawing all his lots, Caleb approaches and demands his reward. Though he is 85 years old now, he claims that he is still strong enough to fight and, therefore, would like to be granted the hill country where he had initially seen the Anakim (the giants he saw in Numbers 13). Joshua agrees, giving him Hebron – previously named Kiriatharba. The Arba in the name is the “greatest man among the Anakim” (Josh. 14:15). Incidentally, there’s a discussion over at Remnant of Giants about whether “Anakim” here should refer to a specific group of people, or whether it is used more broadly as a term for giants.

We have to wait until the next chapter and half of Judah’s allotment before we find out what happens next. Caleb heads up to Hebron and defeats Anak’s three sons, Sheshai, Ahiman, and Talmai. Having now a taste for blood, he heads off to fight Debir, offering his daughter, Achsah, as a wife for anyone who conquers it for him. Othniel son of Kenaz, Caleb’s brother, takes him up on the offer and marries his niece. She tells her new husband to ask her father for a field and they are given some land in the Negeb. Later, while dismounting a donkey (presumably not an unflattering nickname for Othniel), she asks her father for water springs as well. Caleb gives her a few.

It’s a cute story, but we were told in Josh. 11:21 that it was Joshua who had defeated the Anakim in Hebron and Debir.

Joshua: Josh. 19:49-51. Now that all the lands are distributed, God tells the Israelites to give Joshua some land, too. I love this little detail – we are specifically told that the Israelites gave Joshua his land (on God’s command), just in case anyone dared to wonder if perhaps Joshua was skimming a little from the top for himself! Of course, we’re also told that he specifically asked for the town they gave him, so it still feels a little like a stacked deck. Either way, he receives Timnathserah, which is in his tribe’s – Ephraim – land.

The Remainder

In Josh. 20, the cities of refuge are appointed. You will remember these cities from Numbers 35. We had been told that there should be six of them in total, and they are:

  1. Kedesh in Naphtali’s territory
  2. Shechem in Ephraim’s territory
  3. Kiriatharba (Hebron) in Judah’s territory
  4. Bezer in Reuben’s territory
  5. Ramoth in Gad’s territory
  6. Golan in Manasseh’s territory

The latter three had already been appointed in Deuteronomy 4.

The tribe of Joseph (composed of Manasseh and Ephraim) complain to Joshua that they are too numerous for the amount of land they were given. Joshua, who sadly lacks a head for numbers, also managed to muck up Judah’s portion (giving them too much) in Josh. 19:9. To solve the problem, Joshua sends them into the forests belonging to the Perizzites and Rephaim to clear some space for themselves.

But, reply Manasseh and Ephraim, those guys have chariots of iron! (Josh. 17:16) Joshua reassures them that they will be fine, and that they will drive out the Canaanites even though they have chariots of iron and are very strong.

Numbers 36: More inheritance issues

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Back in Numbers 27, we found out about Zelophehad – a man who had died leaving several daughters but no sons. At the time, his daughters petitioned Moses for the right to inherit their father’s hypothetical land. Moses – and God – agreed that they should, and revised the inheritance rules accordingly.

Numbers 36Unfortunately, they forgot what we extrapolated from Numbers 30 – that women, as subject to their fathers/husbands, are not citizens. So while they may be granted stewardship of a man’s land if he is deceased, they can never truly own anything. That’s the crux of this chapter.

Zelophehad’s peers – the heads of the Gileadite families – come forward to petition Moses. Since women may only have stewardship of land without access to the tribal affiliations that go with it, Zelophehad’s land will pass on to whomever they marry. If they marry outside of their tribe, those lands will be lost to Gilead forever.

God, having apparently not thought of this earlier, agrees with them, and he determines that an inheriting woman must marry “within the family of the tribe of their father” (v.6). That’s all well and good if the women happen not to have married yet, but there’s no clarification if they are.

  • Would a married woman be excluded from the inheritance?
  • Would she have to get a divorce?
  • Would she only have the lands for as long as she lives, and they must pass on to her cousin’s sons upon her death?
  • Does she only get to keep her inheritance until the next Jubilee and then it passes to the families of her father’s brothers?

There’s no mention that this might even have been a consideration because, luckily (or not?) for Mahlah, Tirzah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Noah, they seem to all be available for marriage to their cousins and the question is averted.

Inherited weirdness

I’m quite interested in inheritance laws. I grew up in Switzerland, where the lack of arable land makes a gavelkind sort of inheritance system very problematic. If more than one son inherits the family farm, individual plots would, very quickly, become far too small to support the families they belong to. Because of this, Swiss men who didn’t have the fortune of being first sons were often left up to their own devices – giving rise to the reputation of the Swiss as mercenaries.

This would conceivably be an issue anywhere, given enough time, but the lack of farming land in Switzerland makes it a particularly pressing concern.

I’m curious as to what would have been the practice in ancient Israel. On the one hand, all of Zelophehad’s daughters are named as inheritors, so it does seem as though something like gavelkind is in use. On the other hand, the Jacob and Esau narrative in Genesis 25 and Genesis 27 points to a focus on primogeniture (albeit with the possibility of being revoked or altered).

We also have many stories of brothers splitting off and each founding their own tribe (as Jacob’s sons did) or nationalities (as Noah’s sons did). This seems to suggest a more informal system of inheritance that deals with overcrowding by groups splitting off and finding their own space to settle – something that seems impossible given the rules of the Jubilee (where all property must revert back to the families of the original owner).

I looked up the question and found the following answer from a page on the University of Manitoba’s anthropology department website:

The inheritance of land and other property was channeled along patrilineal lines. Primogeniture, or succession by the eldest son, seems to have been the preferred rule as this institution is explicitly promulgated in one passage ( Deuteronomy 21:15-17), and is implicitly assumed in many accounts of individual cases. However, biblical acknowledgement of primogeniture usually occurs in contexts where the rule is broken as in the life histories of important religious and political figures, including Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, and David.

We may interpret these curious accounts in two different ways.

  1. They indicate that the rule had a limited application, perhaps only to intestacy, and could be overridden by gift or will.
  2. Or more plausibly, they attribute special statuses and powers to key characters by portraying them as breaking the rules to which exceptions were not normally allowed.

[…]

The treatment of inheritance through a daughter also provides evidence that marriage may have involved the adoption of a woman into her husband’s lineage and the discontinuation of rights in her natal group. Such an arrangement is indicated in other biblical passages as in the marriages of Eve and Ruth. It is also documented for a number of patrilineal systems including ancient Rome and contemporary Chinese and Arabic societies. An alternative pattern, in which women retain natal identities after marriage, is apparent in many West African patrilineal systems.

Numbers 27: Succession Planning

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Way back in the halcyon days of last Friday, we found out that Zelophehad, son of Hepher, son of Gilead, son of Machir, son of Manasseh had only daughters: Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah. 

Daughters of Zelophehad by Bonnie Lee Roth

Daughters of Zelophehad by Bonnie Lee Roth

Given the clearly agnatic inheritance assumptions we’ve seen modelled thus far, it seems that this would be the end of the Hepherites. But Zelophehad’s daughters, upset that their father’s name should end, ask Moses to grant them their father’s inheritance.

Moses decides to bring their case before God, who writes up some quick inheritance laws to help out in just such a situation:

  • If a man has no sons, his daughters should receive the inheritance.
  • If he has no children at all, the inheritance goes to his brothers.
  • If he has no brothers either, it should go to his father’s brothers.
  • If his father also had no brothers, it should go to “his kinsman that is next to him of his family” (v.11).

I find it interesting that this didn’t carry forward in many Christian countries, as fans of Downton Abbey well know (read this great article for an explanation of how that came about).

Noa(h)

David Plotz named his daughter Noa after this chapter. Of the name he writes:

In English, the girl’s name Noa sounds identical to the name of Noah the ark builder. But in Hebrew, they’re totally distinct names, spelled and pronounced very differently. Noa the girl is pronounced “No-a,” just as we say it. But Noah the boy is “No-ach” in Hebrew, making it a much harsher sounding name.

Yet the spelling distinction doesn’t exist in my text, nor in any other that I’ve found through a quick BibleHub comparison. In both the cases of Zelophehad’s daughter and the guy who got so drunk that he passed out naked, my Bible has “Noah” with an H.

It’s not a particularly important point, but I do find it interesting.

Sin

When explaining that their father died without sons, the women say that he: “died in the wilderness; he was not among the company of those who gathered themselves together against the Lord in the company of Korah, but died for his own sin” (v.3).

So what was that sin?

The emphasis on “his own sin” seems to suggest that he didn’t fall under the collective punishment that came with the 40 year wilderness sentence. According to the JewishEncyclopedia, rabbinical literature seems to favour the theory that Zelophehad was the Sabbath-breaker from Numbers 15. Blogger Dovbear has a great explanation of the argument in favour of this association.

Another tradition has it that Zelophehad was one of the gun-jumpers who decided to dismiss God’s 40 year sentence and headed into Canaan without permission in Numbers 14.

Sneak Peek

Once he’s done dealing with the uppity women, God sends Moses up to the mountain of Abarim, from which he can see the promised land. After this, Moses will die because of his rock abuse in Numbers 20.

David Plotz asks:

Is this very cruel or very kind? Is it excruciating for Moses to have to see what he wants more than anything in the world but cannot have? Or is this gaze consolation for a dying man? I can’t decide.

Moses begs God to appoint a successor, “that the congregation of the Lord may not be as sheep which have no shepherd” (v.17). Interestingly, Moses has a son, so the leadership – at least at this point – is clearly not hereditary. (Unless Moses’ kids are excluded because of their mixed heritage?)

It’s not quite a meritocracy, either. Joshua, son of Nun, is chosen because he is “a man in whom is the spirit” (v.18). In other words, he gets to be the leader because he has the same prophetic status as Moses.

But despite clearly being a very theocratic system, it’s not a system ruled by clerics/priests, exactly. Though he is to “stand before Eleazar the priest, who shall inquire for him by the judgement of the Urim before the Lord” (v.21).

This could mean, as some interpretations have it, that Joshua has the option of consulting Eleazar whenever he doesn’t know what to do. But it could also mean that he must consult Eleazar before making big decisions, functionally putting the high priest above the secular monarch.

Numbers 26: Census Do-Over

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Between the plagues, food poisoning, gaping chasms, spontaneous combustions, etc, the usefulness of the census taken in Numbers 1 is rather obsolete. As we near the end of our journey, God decides that it’s time to take another head count of eligible soldiers.

The other purpose for conducting the census is to help with dividing up the lands once they get into Canaan. This seems a little pre-emptive to me, but what do I know. There’s also some talk of lots. If I’m interpreting v.53-56 correctly, all the head of house names are to go in a big hat, and the lot will be used to decide which spot each should get.

We’re also reminded that none of the men counted were adults when they originally left Egypt with Moses and Aaron (those guys having all since died), with the exception of Caleb, son of Jephunneh, and Joshua, son of Nun.

Reuben

Reuben, if you remember, was the eldest of Israel’s sons. Unfortunately for him, a little indiscretion lost him his primacy. He had four sons:

  • Hanoch, sire of the Hanochites
  • Pallu (or Phallu), sire of the Palluites
  • Hezron, sire of the Hezronites
  • Carmi, sire of the Carmites

Pallu’s son, Eliab, had three sons: Nemuel, Dathan, and Abiram. We’re reminded that these are the Dathan and Abiram who rebelled with Korah back in Numbers 16. We’re told here that Dathan and Abiram were killed along with Korah, though their deaths weren’t mentioned.

There’s also a little note telling us that “the children of Korah died not” (v.11). This seems to contradict what we were told in Numbers 16:31-32:

As soon as he finished saying all this, the ground under them split apart and the earth opened its mouth and swallowed them and their households, and all those associated with Korah, together with their possessions.

Granted, his children aren’t specifically mentioned, but it does seem implied.

The total number of Reubenites eligible for military service is 43,730.

Simeon

Back in Genesis 46, the Simeon’s sons are named as: Jemuel, Jamin, Ohad, Jachin, Zohar, and Shaul. Here, however, the list is:

  • Nemuel, sire of the Nemuelites
  • Jamin, sire of the Jaminites
  • Jachin, sire of the Jachinites
  • Zerah, sire of the Zarhites
  • Shaul, sire of the Shaulites

For whatever reason, the lines of Jemuel, Ohad, and Zohar seem not to have survived, and Simeon apparently picked up Nemuel and Zerah somewhere.

I find it interesting that Jemuel and Nemuel, and Zohar and Zerah are quite similar. I wonder if these are equivalents from two different narrative traditions.

The total number of Simeonites eligible for military service is 22,200.

Gad

We get some more name funkiness with Gad. According to Genesis 46, his sons are: Ziphion, Haggi, Shuni, Ezbon, Eri, Arodi, and Areli. Here, however, they are:

  • Zephon, sire of the Zephonites
  • Haggi, sire of the Haggites
  • Shuni, sire of the Shunites
  • Ozni, sire of the Oznites
  • Eri, sire of the Erites
  • Arod, sire of the Arodites
  • Areli, sire of the Arelites

The lists seem to match, but quite a few spellings have changed.

The total number of Gad’s descendants eligible for military service is 40,500.

Judah

Judah’s story matches up with the genealogy in Genesis 46. I guess they kept better records, or something. His sons were:

  • Er (deceased, no kids)
  • Onan (deceased, no kids)
  • Shelah, sire of the Shelanites
  • Pharez, sire of the Pharzites
  • Zerah, sire of the Zarhites

We get some further subdivision with the sons of Pharez:

  • Hezron, sire of the Hezronites
  • Hamul, sire of the Hamulites

Total eligible soldiers from Judah: 76,500.

Issachar

Issachar’s sons, according to Genesis 46, are Tola, Phuvah, Job, and Shimron. Once again, there’s quite substantial differences. His sons here are:

  • Tola, sire of the Tolaites
  • Pua, sire of the Punites
  • Jashub, sire of the Jashubites
  • Shimron, sire of the Shimronites

Again, the names are kinda similar, just enough to suggest that they come from different oral traditions.

Total descendants of Issachar eligible for military service: 64,300.

Zebulun

Zebulun’s family kept better records. In both versions, his sons are:

  • Sered, sire of the Sardites
  • Elon, sire of the Elonites
  • Jahleel, sire of the Jahleelites

There are 60,500 eligible soldiers among the Zebulunites.

Joseph

Joseph, of course, had two sons: Manasseh and Ephraim. Both are kinda sorta heads of their own tribes, depending on how the count is made.

Manasseh’s sons are:

  • Machir, sire of the Machirites

Machir, in turn, fathered Gilead, sire of the Gileadites.

Gilead’s sons are:

  • Jeezer, sire of the Jeezerites
  • Helek, sire of the Helekites
  • Asriel, sire of the Asrielites
  • Shechem, sire of the Shechemites
  • Shemida, sire of the Shemidaites
  • Hepher, sire of the Hepherites

It’s unclear through which of these sons the Gileadites are counted.

Hepher also had a son: Zelophehad. Unfortunately, Zelophehad only had daughters:

  • Mahlah
  • Noah
  • Hoglah
  • Milcah
  • Tirzah

So if the line of Hepher is getting named as a land recipient, that implies that there’s some way for these women to pass their father’s land to their own children.

Total soldier-able descendants of Manasseh: 52,700.

Ephraim’s sons are:

  • Shuthelah, sire of the Shuthalhites
  • Becher, sire of the Bachrites
  • Tahan, sire of the Tahanites

Shuthelah sired Eran, who sired the Eranites. Did Shuthelah have other sons, or are all Shuthalhites also Eranites and vice versa?

There are 32,500 eligible soldiers among the descendants of Ephraim.

Benjamin

With Benjamin, we get some genealogical issues. Benjamin’s sons are:

  • Bela, sire of the Belaites
  • Ashbel, sire of the Ashbelites
  • Ahiram, sire of the Ahiramites
  • Shupham, sire of the Shuphamites
  • Hupham, sire of the Huphamites

Only Bela (named Belah) and Ashbel are found in Genesis 46, listed along with their brothers: Becher, Gera, Naaman, Ehi, Rosh, Muppim, Huppim, and Ard.

Then, from Bela, we get his sons:

  • Ard, sire of the Ardites
  • Naaman, sire of the Naamites

Notice that both of these were listed as Benjamin’s sons, not his grandsons, in Genesis 46.

The total military contingent provided by the tribe of Benjamin is 45,600.

Dan

In Genesis 46, Dan’s only son is named Hushim. Here, of course, his son’s name is Shuham (sire of the Shuhamites).

Descendants of Dan, you only had one name to remember! Sheesh!

Total descendants of Dan eligible for military service: 64,400.

Asher

In Genesis 46, Asher’s children are named Jimnah, Ishuah, Ishni, Beriah, and a daughter named Serah. Here, his children are named:

  • Jimna, sire of the Jimnites
  • Jesui, sire of the Jesuites
  • Beriah, sire of the Beriites
  • Sarah

Back in Genesis 46, Beriah’s sons are Heber and Malchiel, which matches the names given here (sires of the Heberites and Malchielites, respectively).

Not that I’m complaining, but I find it interesting that Serah/Sarah is named in both genealogies, especially given that there’s no mention of anything special about her. She’s not sire to any sub-tribe, so there’s really no reason to mention her in this census.

I’m apparently not the only one to be confused. It seems that some early midrash composers felt that she wouldn’t be mentioned unless there was something pretty special about her, so there’s a fairly substantial collection of fanfic that’s been written about her.

The total number of Asher’s descendants who are eligible for military service is 53,400.

Naphtali

Naphtali’s sons are:

  • Jahzeel, sire of the Jahzeelites
  • Guni, sire of the Gunites
  • Jezer, sire of the Jezerites
  • Shillem, sire of the Shillemites

The total number of eligible soldiers among the descendants of Naphtali is 45,400.

Adding them up

That’s a total of 601,730, only 1,820 fewer people than counted in the last census. That’s a pretty amazing reproduction rate, considering the fact that God’s been killing these people by the thousands for a few years now.

What’s interesting to me is to compare the two censii and see how the various tribes made out. Reuben, Gad, Ephraim, and Naphtali all saw a reduction, mostly in the 2,000-8,000 range.

Some tribes actually grew, albeit modestly: Judah, Issachar, Zebulun, Benjamin, Dan, and Asher.

But the really surprising ones are Simeon and Joseph. Simeon, apparently, really ticked God off, because at 37,100, they took the heaviest losses. As for Joseph, Manasseh and Ephraim appear to have traded places, with Manasseh going from 32,200 to 52,700, and Ephraim going from 40,500 to 32,500. A rather impressive feat from Manasseh!

Levi

The Levites, not being eligible for receiving land, are counted separately. They are divided into three groups, after Levi’s sons:

  • Gershon, sire of the Gershonites
  • Kohath, sire of the Kohathites
  • Merari, sire of the Merarites

We’re also given a list of “the families of the Levites” (v.58), though there’s not indication of how they are connected to the original three branches:

  • Libnites
  • Hebronites
  • Mahlites
  • Mushites
  • Korathites

We’re also told that Kohath had one son, Amram, who married his aunt, Jochebed. They are the parents of Aaron, Moses, and Miriam.

Aaron’s sons are Nadab, Abihu, Eleazar, and Ithamar. The first two, of course, were killed in Leviticus 10.

While the rest of the tribes are counted by how useful they’d be as soldiers, Levites are counted for that whole weird redemption business we heard about in Numbers 3. Because of this, all Levite males a month old or over are counted. Yet still, the total only comes to 23,000.

Genesis 24: Finding a wife for Isaac

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In this chapter, Abraham sends his servant back to Mesopotamia – where most of Abraham’s family still lives – to find a wife for Isaac, because he doesn’t want one of those dirty Canaanite girls with their alternative deities and all that.

So he calls to his servant and asks him to grab his testicles. Seriously. He says to his servant: “put your hand under my thigh, and I will make you swear by the Lord” (Gen. 24:2-3). Boy, if I had a nickel for every time a guy’s said that to me!

I’d still be woefully nickel-less. But Abraham’s servant would clearly have at least one!

Aaanyways, the point of all this testes-fisting is apparently an old form of oath taking. One would think that spitting into one’s hands and shaking them was sufficiently disgusting, but these guys like to go all out. In any case, the servant vows to go to Mesopotamia and never ever ever ever to allow Isaac to marry a local.

But the servant is concerned – what if he goes all the way to Mesopotamia, finds a girl, and she isn’t willing to come back with him? Not to worry, says Abraham. If that happens, he’ll be freed from the oath. So the servant sticks his hand under Abraham’s thigh and swears.

Meeting at the well

Rebekah at the well by Valerio Castello, c.1645

Rebekah at the well by Valerio Castello, c.1645

When the servant gets to Nahor, he sets up shop beside the well (which, apparently, is where all the lovely ladies like to congregate). Now, the servant wanted to make sure that he got the right lady for Isaac, so he prayed to God that, when he goes up to a lady and asks her if he could drink from her jar, the right lady will respond by saying: “Drink, and I will water your camels” (Gen. 24:14). Gotta make sure his master’s new lady comes ready-domestic!

So he’s barely done talking when Rebekah comes waltzing up to the well. Rebekah, if you remember, is Abraham’s grand-niece. What we haven’t been told is that Adam and Eve were created with only three fingers on each hand. The five we have today is from all the incest.

Anyways, the servant (poor guy doesn’t even gets a name) goes up to Rebekah and goes through his spiel of asking her for a drink of water. She answers him: “Drink, my lord” and lets him have her jar. At this point, ancient readers (before TV took entertainment to the next level) were probably on the edge of their seats. Will she say it? OMG, will she?

She did! Sort of… What she actually says is “I will draw for your camels also, until they have done drinking” (Gen. 24:19). Right, well not exactly what she was supposed to say for the magics to work, and it’s pretty much what anyone would say in that situation, but the servant seems to be okay with a bit of fudging. She got the gist of it right, at least.

So the servant gives Rebekah a gold ring and two gold bracelets, and asks whose daughter she is and whether there’s room for him in her father’s house. Rebekah tells him her lineage – which pleases the servant because she is suitably closely related to Abraham &son to satisfy God’s penchant for incest – and says that there is room in her father’s house.

Meeting the Family

Rebekah runs home to let her family know that the servant is coming. Her brother, Laban, sees her new bling and gets rather excited. So he goes out to meet the servant and invites him in very warmly. Yes, it says that he “saw the ring, and the bracelets on his sister’s arms” (Gen. 24:29) and that’s when he goes out to meet the servant. The implication is rather clear.

But before the servant will have dinner, he wants to re-cap the entire chapter for Rebekah’s family. The reader is therefore treated to the entire story we’ve covered so far for a second time, and it isn’t all that shorter this time around. He does, blessedly, leave out the part about grabbing testicles.

Of course, he does dwell on how much stuff Abraham has. “The Lord has greatly blessed my master, and he has become great; he has given him flocks and herds, silver and fold, menservants and maidservants, camels and asses” (Gen. 24:35). It’s important, I find, when introducing someone to list all of their possessions. Make sure to mention that they have slaves (both male and female!). Is he a drunk? Is he violent? Does he have a history of trying to sacrifice his kids or sending them off into the wilderness? Perhaps a history of raping members of his household?

See, if I were considering whether or not to send my daughter off to live in some guy’s household, these are the kinds of things I’d like to know. I’m not frankly all that concerned about how many flocks and herds he has.Although the slave ownership bit might be some indication of what this poor girl is getting into.

The servant even tells Rebekah’s parents about Rebekah telling them who her parents are. He lists her genealogy right there, in front of her genealogy. I’m sure they were riveted and oh-so-very glad that he’s made everyone wait before eating dinner to hear this.

Ancient Hebrews: big on being good hosts, not so much on being good guests.

By the way, that ring he gave Rebekah? It’s totally a nose ring. Rebekah is hard core. Also, the servant is the one who stuck it in her nose (Gen. 24:47). I find that hilarious.

On the delaying of having dinner, Matthews explains that the servant “demonstrates his own shrewdness by refusing to accept the hospitality of Laban’s house before beginning the negotiations. He does not wish to be unfavorably obligated to Laban, and thus it is only after the bargain is struck that he willingly enters the house and eats a meal” (Manners & Customs, p.37). It all comes down to the laws of hospitality – the obligations of host to guest and guest to host. Something Lord Walder Frey really ought to learn something about.

She said yes!

The servant finishes off by asking if he can take Rebekah back to Canaan for Isaac, and her father and brother answer: “Behold, Rebekah is before you, take her and go, and let her be the wife of your master’s son” (Gen. 24:51). Don’t bother asking her or anything. Heck, even for an arranged marriage, this is pretty crappy background checking. All he did was give her a nose ring and a couple bangles, that doesn’t mean that anything he’s said is true! Are they not even going to go meet Abraham? Check out the household? Make sure he’s really as wealthy as he claims (assuming that this is their primary concern, rather than, say, his history of trying to off his own kids)?

But it’s cool, cause the servant then gives “jewelry of silver and of gold, and raiment” to Rebekah and some “costly ornaments” to her brother and mother (Gen. 24:53).

In the morning, the servant announces that he’ll be taking Rebekah back to Abraham now, and her family asks if she can at least stay ten days. But the servant insists. Bit rude for someone they only the day before, I say…

But finally, someone thinks to ask Rebekah for her opinion, so they ask her if she wants to go right away or wait a bit. In what I can only imagine is an air of resignation, Rebekah agrees to go post haste. Thus, Rebekah and her maids get on a bunch of camels and ride back to Canaan with Abraham’s servant.

Meeting Isaac

So Isaac’s hanging out in the Negeb and goes outside to meditate. When he opens his eyes and looks out, he sees camels coming. Rebekah happens to look up at precisely the same moment and they see each other.

She asks the servant who the man is and he confirms that it’s Isaac. So she covers herself up with her veil. Her future husband shouldn’t see her, but it’s fine for everyone else, apparently. Modesty rules are weird…

The servant meets Isaac and tells him everything we’ve covered so far in the chapter (thankfully, it isn’t all spelled out this time). Isaac then “brought her into the tent, and took Rebekah, and she became his wife” (Gen. 24:67). Wait… He “took” her and then she became his wife? That’s not the order my Sunday School told us to do things…

Despite what my Sunday School had to say about such relationships, Isaac does love Rebekah. In fact, getting with his new lady-friend totally comforts him after his mom’s death. So yay!

Genesis 22: The Attempted Murder of Isaac

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After telling Abraham to abandon his first-born son and Hagar in the wilderness, God now turns his sights on Abraham’s other son. He tells Abraham to take Isaac into the land of Moriah and “offer him there as a burnt offering upon one of the mountains of which I shall tell you” (Gen. 22:2).

This time, Abraham doesn’t protest. Either he’s learned his lesson from Chapter 21, or he just doesn’t like Isaac as much. Either way, he wakes up early and gets things ready to murder his son.

This is a really creepy chapter because there’s absolutely no indication that Abraham has any reaction to God’s command. All we get is a narration of him packing up his knife and kindling. No tears are shed, he never complains or begs God to spare his son. It’s all very cold and methodical, it’s almost psychopathic. Just to make the whole scene seem even more cruel, he makes Isaac carry the wood on which he intends to burn him.

Isaac is still fairly human at first, asking his dad where the sacrificial lamb is (normally a fair question when one is carrying a bunch of pyre wood up a mountain, but rather chilling in this particular situation). Abraham lies and tells him that God will be bringing that himself. But then we’re told that Abraham “bound Isaac his son, and laid him on the altar, upon the wood” (Gen. 22:9). At no point does Isaac say “Hey, dad, why are you binding me up?” or “okay, pa, I can overlook the whole binding me part, but putting me on the sacrificial pyre? What exactly do you think you’re doing?”

There’s no reaction from Isaac, no emotion from Abraham. And remember, this isn’t Isaac being stoic – Abraham lied to him and he has no idea that he is the lamb God will be providing. Yet he doesn’t seem at all concerned.

In the nick of time

The Sacrifice of Abraham by Andrea del Sarto

The Sacrifice of Abraham by Andrea del Sarto

As Abraham raises his knife to kill Isaac, the angel of the Lord calls down to him, saying “Woah, dude! I was just kidding! I didn’t think you’d actually go through with it!”

Interestingly, his exact words are: “For now I know that you fear God, seeing you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me” (Gen. 22:12). There are two problems with this.

The first is the implication that God has to test Abraham to know whether he fears God or not. In other words, God not only cannot predict the future, he also cannot even read our minds.

The second problem is that God refers to Isaac as Abraham’s “only son.” Does Ishmael suddenly not exist? He’s been cast out, sure, but he’s being made into a nation because he is Abraham’s son even after having been abandoned. Unless part of the abandonment was a total disowning. If this is the case, it might explain the literal issue, but it only raises a moral one.

I do think it’s important to note that, while God does stop Abraham from killing his son, it’s “without ever suggesting that the act of slaughtering one’s own child is immoral” (Sam Harris, Letter to a Christian Nation, p.97). Once again, God prevents a crime because it serves his own purposes, not because the crime itself is wrong. Furthermore, it’s insane to think of this as having really happened. Imagine if someone today claimed that they heard the voice of God telling them to kill their child! That person would be locked up, but paraded as a paragon of faith!

But God does stop Abraham from killing Isaac and, because Abraham was totally willing to go through with it, God will reward him with a blessing. “I will multiply your descendants as the stars of heaven and the sand which is on the seashore. And your descendants shall possess the gate of their enemies, and by your descendants shall all the nations of the earth bless themselves, because you have obeyed my voice” (Gen. 22:17-18). For those of you counting at home, this is the fourth time God is promising these things to Abraham.

Abraham goes back down the mountain with Isaac and they all go home.

Is a lie still a lie if it turns out to be true?

Abraham makes a couple statements that seem out of place given what he’s supposed to know:

  • When he gets to the mountain, he says to his servants: “Stay here with the ass; I and the lad will go yonder and worship, and come again to you” (Gen. 22:5);
  • When Isaac asks where is the lamb for the offering, Abraham answers: “God will provide himself the lamb for a burnt offering” (Gen. 22:8).

In both cases, Abraham is lying to avoid suspicion. But in both cases, the lie turns out to be the truth. Is this the authors’ idea of humour?

Prophecy

By the way, this chapter is a favourite of Christians who claim that Jesus is prophesied throughout the Old Testament. There are two passages cited:

When asked about the sacrifice, Abraham says: “God will provide himself the lamb for a burnt offering” (Gen. 22:8). This, clearly, is not supposed to answer the question he has just been asked (even though it fits perfectly in this context). Rather, it’s letting the reader know that God will be sending a lamb (*wink wink nudge nudge*) to be sacrificed for our sins.

When God tells Abraham for the fourth time that he’ll have oodles of descendants, he adds: “By your descendants shall all the nations of the earth bless themselves” (Gen.22:18). If you turn your head to the side, squint, ignore the context of the passage, and pretend that “descendants” is actually in the singular, this is totally letting us know that the future messiah (Jesus!) will be descended from Abraham.

More Genealogy

After all that excitement, the authors decide to bring us back down with another genealogy. This time, we’re jumping over to Abraham’s brother, Nahor.

From his wife, Milcah (who, if we remember, is also his niece), he has eight sons: Uz (or Huz), Buz, Kemuel, Chesed, Hazo, Pildash, Jidlaph, and Bethuel. Kemuel fathers Aram and Bethuel fathers Rebekah.

Not content with just a wife and her eight sons, Nahor also takes a concubine, named Reumah, and has four kids: Tebah, Gaham, Thahash, and Maachah.

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.”