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Commentary on Genesis - Chapters 10-16

Chapter 10 | Chapter 11 | Chapters 12-13 | Chapter 14 | Chapter 15 | Chapter 16

Chapter 10 - The Table of Nations

Hae generationes filiorum Noe: Sem, Ham, Iafeth... (10:1)

The tenth chapter of Genesis consists of a genealogical "table of nations" illustrating the relations among all the nations of the ancient Middle East. Most of the names in this genealogy are identifiable nations or tribes. The use of this style reinforces our view that the patriarchal genealogies from Adam to Abraham also correspond to the histories of tribes or nations, not merely individuals.

The nations descended from each of Noah's three sons, Ham, Shem, and Japheth, correspond roughly to African, Semitic, and Indo-European groupings. Although the narrative structure is genealogical, we are not compelled to infer that each nation singlehandedly fathered others, as the author has previously affirmed that the sons of Japheth would intermingle with those of Shem, so that blood relations among the nations are far more complicated then this schematic table indicates. Nonetheless, there is a meaningful order and structure to this table, so that by identifying as many of these names as possible, we may develop an understanding of the cultural relationships among the nations of antiquity.

Descendants of Japheth

Japheth, whose descendants include many Indo-European nations, was revered by the early Greeks as Iapetos, known to the Romans as the god Jupiter. In India, he is Pra-Japati, lord of creation. In classical antiquity, educated Jews and Christians commonly believed that the names of Greco-Roman gods were derived from names of men, often treating this theory as known fact. Modern scholarship has largely neglected this hypothesis. Here in Genesis, the sacred author has preserved the name of Japheth independently of the Greeks or Romans, thereby supporting the idea that at least some of the Greco-Roman deities were derived from the names of men. Greco-Roman paganism was not idolatrous in the sense of deifying inanimate objects, as the men of classical antiquity recognized that statues merely represented gods. This sophisticated religion may have supplanted an earlier idolatry that deified great men.

Gomer, descendant of Japheth, represents the Cimmerians who lived by the Caspian Sea. The Assyrians called them Gimmaraya, and Genesis preserves this ancient version of their name, evidencing its own antiquity.

Magog, descendant of Japheth, represents the Magogites, who would enter recorded history already assimilated into the Scythians (the Ashkenaz of Genesis 10:3).

Japheth's descendants Madai and Javan refer to the Medes and the Ionians (Greeks of Asia Minor), respectively, both of which are well known to students of ancient history.

Tubal, son of Japheth, refers to the people called "Tabali" by the Assyrians. Flavius Josephus wrote that they became the Iberes. Their original land, Iberia, was in present-day Georgia in the Caucasus region. From there they migrated to the river they named Tobol.

The Assyrians and Herodotus both refer to the nations of Tubal and Meshech in tandem: "Tabal" and "Musku"; "Tiberanoi" and "Moskoi", suggesting a proximity between the two. The Meshechites may have inhabited the Moshian mountains between Armenia and Iberia. (Josephus identified the descendants of Meshech as the Cappadocians of Asia Minor, but this seems to have been an error.) Some hold that the proximity of the Tubalites and Meshechites persisted centuries later, with the name of the latter preserved in the name Moscow.

Tiras, last of the descendants of Japheth, is a name preserved in Egyptian (New Kingdom) and Greek records as "Turhsa" and "Tyrsenoi" repsectively. In both accounts, they are described as marauding pirates from the north. Josephus identifies them as the Thracians.

Gomer, or Cimmeria, is said to have three descendants:

Javan, or Ionia, begat four nations:

From these descendants of Japheth "sprang the maritime nations" (10:5), that is, the nations of the central and western Mediterranean. Indeed, all such peoples are of Indo-European descent.

Descendants of Ham

The descendants of Ham are commonly identified with Africa, causing most interpreters to regard Ksh (10:6) as "Cush", or Ethiopia. However, in Genesis 2:13, this name clearly refers to a place in the Fertile Crescent, and Genesis 10:8 lists Nimrod (who was probably Akkadian, or at any rate Mesopotamian) as a descendant of Ksh. Thus it is unlikely that Genesis 10:6 refers to Ethiopia. A more likely candidate for these descendants of Ham would be the Kassites, a non-Indo-European people that came from either the north or the east to conquer Babylon late in the second millenium B.C., introducing the use of the horse. It is not clear that these people themselves are the intended "Ksh", but rather the region associated with them (eastern Mesopotamia) may be the identification meant. In any event, it is noteworthy that the descendants of Ksh listed in Genesis are predominantly Arabian, not African.

Mizraim, the second descendant of Ham, is the Hebrew name for the Egyptians. The Egyptians were probably of mixed negroid and caucasoid descent, the latter extraction being their descent from Ham. Thus, this verse does not require us to infer that all the peoples of Africa were descended from Ham. The "Hamites" and the "Kshites" may have been contemporaries or predecessors of the early Egyptians, though we must be reminded that the ethnography of Egypt changed dramatically throughout historical times, and the "Mizraim" may actually be a more recent arrival than the antiquity of Egyptian civilization would suggest.

Ham's third descendant was Put, or Punt, situated on the north coast of Africa, to the west of Egypt.

The people of Canaan, despite their Semitic language, are classified among the descendants of Ham, consistent with their proximity to Egypt and Arabia.

We see further evidence for a non-African Ksh in the geographical locations of his descendants:

The preponderance of Ksh's descendants lived in eastern Arabia, consistent with a Mesopotamian origin, either from the city of Kish or the Kassites. The latter are noted to have been traders with the Sidonese and other Canaanites, establishing a link with their western brethren. This is unsurprising, given the plasticity and interconnectedness of ancient Middle Eastern nations.

Sheba and Denan were descended from Raamah. Sheba was in southwest Arabia, and Denan in the northwest, near modern Tayma.

The inspired author next describes Nimrod, a son of Ksh who is not mentioned in the above genealogy of nations, for here a specific individual is intended. Modern scholars have tried to make Nimrod an Assyrian, but the text expressly contradicts this: "The chief cities of his kingdom were Babylon, Erech, and Accad, all of them in the land of Shinar." (10:10) This confines us to Babylonian, Sumerian, and Akkadian kings. We are told, "From that land he went forth to Asshur..." (10:11), so he can not have been Sumerian. One might think the mention of Babylon eliminates the Akkadians, but Sharkalisharri (great-grandson of Sargon of Akkad) claims to have built a temple there, attesting at least to that city's existence in his time. Akkad, on the other hand, was reduced to ruins long before the ascent of Babylon, so its mention as one of Nimrod's chief cities means that Nimrod antedated the Old Babylonian Empire, making him Akkadian.

It is not clear from the text of Genesis 10:11 whether Nimrod or Asshur (the Assyrians) built Nineveh and Calah (Rehoboth-Ir is merely an epithet for Nineveh). We know from stelae that Nineveh did exist in Akkadian times, and the site at Calah is of similar antiquity, so if Nimrod built these cities, he was probably Akkadian.

Nimrod could be Sargon of Akkad, founder of the world's first empire, or his grandson, Naram- Sin, who replicated his conquests. Both Sargon and Naram-Sin began in Sumer (Shinar) with a base in central Mesopotamia: Akkad and Babylon. They also controlled the rest of Sumer (of which Uruk was the most prominent city), and then proceeded to conquer the north. Either king might rightfully claim the title of "first potentate on earth" (10:8), since some debate the extent of Sargon's control over his "empire", and only Naram-Sin makes the claim to universal rule of the "four quarters". Also, Naram-Sin made war with Ebla and destroyed it, leaving a deep impression on these West Semitic people who were culturally related to those who preserved the traditions in Genesis.

The geographic and chronological considerations we have discussed preclude the possibility that Nimrod could have been Assyrian. Nimrod came from southern Mesopotamia (Shinar) and was contemporaneous with the city of Akkad, which was destroyed long before the rise of the Assyrians. Nonetheless, most modern scholars hold that Nimrod was Assyrian, ignoring the explicit negative evidence in Genesis, yet purporting to derive their theory from weaker positive evidence in the same text. Nimrod is said to have built "Resen, between Nineveh and Calah, the latter being the principal city." (10:12) Since Calah later became the capital of the Assyrian empire, it is argued that Nimrod dates to this much later time. It is faulty analysis to cite one verse as evidence while ignoring contradictory evidence in the same text two verses earlier. Moreover, the evidence of verse 12 is equivocal at best. While the cities of Shinar are described in the past tense as having been the "chief cities" of Nimrod's kingdom, the "principal city" of verse 12 is described in the present tense. Also, it is unclear whether this principal city was Calah or Resen. With modern punctuation, we might accurately translate verses 11-12: "...he built Nineveh (Rehoboth-Ir), Calah, and Resen (between Nineveh and Calah), the latter being the principal city." The parenthetic text is clarifying information regarding each city, Rehoboth-Ir being an epithet for Nineveh. In this construction, the "latter" city would be Resen. If the writer had meant Calah, he would have included the qualifying phrase immediately after the first instance of the name Calah, rather than the second instance, where Calah is mentioned only to locate Resen.

Since Sargon was the builder of Akkad, Nimrod could not have been an earlier king. Sargon was originally in the service of the king of Kish, perhaps providing the origin of Nimrod's Biblical designation as a "son of Ksh." Assyria was later referred to as the "land of Nimrod", and there was even a city there named Nimrud. This does not contradict the idea of an Akkadian Nimrod, for the Assyrians thought of themselves as continuing the legacy of their former overlords, the Akkadians. At least three Assyrian kings even adopted the names of Sargon and Naram-Sin. Since the Assyrians preserved the names of these Akkadian kings independently of the name Nimrud, we might conclude that neither could be the same person as Nimrod. Sargon, however, is not properly a personal name, but a title meaning "the legitimate king". Nimrod therefore may have been the personal name of Sargon.

Very few of the descendants of Mizraim (Egypt) have been positively identified. Their names are all in the Hebrew plural, so they assuredly refer to actual nations known to the Hebrews, rather than men of legend. Several other nationalities in the Bible, such as the Assyrians, the Hittites, and those we have discussed here, were once regarded by scholars as mythical, but are now well established in history. There are, in fact, some extra-Biblical references to the descendants of Mizraim:

The sons of Canaan are numerous, reflecting the highly fragmented nations of Phoenicia, yet special importance is given to the first two.

Descendants of Shem

Genesis 10:21 emphasizes the supremacy of Shem and the importance of Eber as the ancestor of the Hebrews. Verse 22 lists Shem's descendants:

Among the four sons of Aram, only two can be identified in secular history. Meshech, or Mash (not to be confused with the Japhetic Meshech), was situated north of Canaan, while Hul was toward the Sea of Galilee.

The descendants of Arphaxad are described in more personal language, suggesting that we are dealing with clans and familes rather than large nations. The name of Shelah, son of Arphaxad, has not been found in profane history. The name of Eber, however, has been found among the kings of Ebla. If this Eber is somehow related to the Biblical Eber, son of Shelah, it would mean that the family line of the Hebrews separated from Babylonia in the third millenium B.C., before the oldest extant copies of the Sumerian creation account were written. This would account for the literary independence of the Bible and Sumerian legends, neither of which seems to have borrowed directly from the other. The Hebrew language is mch more closely related to Eblaite than to Chaldean (Babylonian). Eblaite had many of the same root words as Hebrew, and proper names such as Abraham and David were used, as was the divine name El. As noted previously, a preponderance of names ending in "ya" might have indirect relation to the Hebrew name for God. Even the word "telom", meaning "the deep", has been found in Eblaite, as in Genesis 1:2, refuting the modern theory that this word (and by extension, Genesis) was of late origin. Most importantly, the Eblaites had copious legal and religious codes which completely undermine the higher critical theory that the Torah must have been of late composition since Hebrews were too primitive to have such complex legal ideas. The common cultural origin of the Eblaites and Babylonians is enough to account for common basic traditions, such the principle of "an eye for an eye", which was certainly no invention of Hammurabi, as written laws were almost invariably preceded by oral laws. Thus, many of the historical assumptions which occasioned a belief in a late composition of Abrahamic tradition and Mosaic law have eroded, and only scholarly inertia prevents a critical re-examination of the thesis of late composition.

The name of Eber's first son, Peleg, means "division", and this etymology is corroborated by Assyrian documents. Eber's other son, Joktan, is the ancestor of over a dozen western and southern Arabian tribes, several of which coincide with Hamitic nations. Thus we have an originally Hamitic Arabia which was later subsumed by Semitic nomads. The dividing of the world in Peleg's time has generally been understood to refer to the story of the tower of Babel. We shall find that this is chronologically consistent with the genealogy from Shem to Abraham and with secular history.

Chapter 11 - The Dispersion of the Nations, and the Ancestry of Abraham

Erat autem terra labii unius et sermonum eorundem. (11:1)

After showing the common ancestry of all the nations, the sacred author explains how they came to be separated and even opposed to one another despite their common origin. This is achieved through the story of the tower of Babel, a moral parable grounded in some obscure historical events. Although it is placed after the end of the table of nations, it does not follow that this dispersion took place after the last of these nations appeared. The order of the text is logical, not chronological. First, the author shows how the nations of the world are really one, and next, as an antithesis, he shows how they have become divided. As we have mentioned, Genesis 10:25 hints that this division occurred in the time of Peleg, or it would be a non sequitur. Traditionally, most commentators have supposed the Babel episode took place in the time of Nimrod, though this does not explicitly follow from the text. We shall see from a construction of the genealogy of Shem that the times of Peleg and Nimrod actually coincide.

Cumque proficiscerentur de oriente, invenerunt campum in terra Senaar et habitaverunt in eo. (11:2)

Chronological constraints imply that these people from the east were not the very first inhabitants of Shinar (Sumer). They used "bricks for stone" and "bitumen for mortar" (11:3), which were the building materials characteristic of the ancient Babylonians. It is therefore likely that either the Babylonians themselves or their Sumerian and Akkadian predecessors are meant. In particular, the Akkadians were Semites from the east, and their city, Akkad, was in the vicinity of Babylon, though its exact location has not been found.

"Venite, faciamus nobis civitatem et turrem cuius culmen pertingat ad caelum, et celebremus nomen nostrum antequam dividamur in universas terras." (11:4)

Since the purpose of sacred history is moral and religious edification, the author of Genesis emphasizes the moral significance of the dispersion of nations. Mankind's latest offense against God is to build a city and a tower that they believe will reach heaven, so they may make a name for themselves. At first glance, this seems like a fairly common pagan conceit, that men can build temples that ascend to heaven, and achieve immortal glory through grandiose works. Yet something especially serious must be happening here, given the special divine intervention which follows.

"Ecce, unus est populus et unum labium omnibus; coeperuntque hoc facere, nec desistent a cogitationibus suis donec eas opere compleant." (11:6)

God's primary concern is not with what is currently being done, but with the greater danger of letting man continue to progress as he pleases, thereby validating the lie that he is his own savior.

"Venite, igitur, descendamus et confundamus ibi linguam eorum ut non audiat unusquisque vocem proximi sui." (11:7)

In "descending" from heaven to earth, God, through His angels, acts directly upon earthly matters in a supernatural intervention. This does not mean that there was no intermediate principle between God's miraculous act and the confounding of tongues. Whatever the means may have been, the results were unquestionably effective. The barrier of language has ultimately thwarted all attempts to establish a global hegemony, even in modern times. Language forms the basis of nationality even among those who have no common government. Disparity of language allows the development of independent cultural and intellectual traditions, which often do not harmonize well with other cultures. St. Augustine poignantly illustrated the insularity of language groups by observing that a man is more comfortable talking to his dog than to a human who does not speak his language.

Atque ita divisit eos Dominus ex illo loco in universas terras, et cessaverunt aedificare civitatem. (11:8)

As a result of the confounding of tongues, the people stopped building he city, and they dispersed throughout the world. If this event took place in the time of Peleg, it might follow that these people did not constitute the entirety of Noah's descendants, and that the "whole world" refers to Mesopotamia.

Hegemony of language existed in Mesopotamia during the Sumerian and Akkadian periods. The first real disruption came during the Gutian invasion at the end of the Akkadian period. The Akkadians united the "four quarters" of the world under Naram-Sin (and more tenuously under Sargon), who was a self-styled divine world ruler. He was also noted as a great builder in many cities. Eight miles from the site of Babylon is the tower of Birs Nimrud, completed in Babylonian times, but recorded to have been left incomplete by a ruler of greater antiquity. All this evidence points to the time of Akkad, and of Naram-Sin in particular, as the historical background for the Babel episode. Naram-Sin, as noted previously, was likely identical to the Biblical Nimrod. Pre-modern Biblical scholars traditionally correlated Nimrod with the Tower of Babel and the time of Peleg independently of archaelogical evidence, reinforcing our hypotheses.

There still remains a question of how the names of Naram-Sin (or Sargon, for that matter) and Nimrud were both preserved in later Assyrian traditions, yet no Assyrian ever equated the two. This is certainly a puzzle, but it would be even more problematic to suppose that a later king (such as an Assyrian Nimrod) was the real Nimrod, as we have shown previously. The puzzle might be resolved by considering that there was a thousand year gap between Akkadian times and the Assyrian empire, which is more than sufficient time for the names Nimrod and Naram-Sin (or Sargon) to have become disassociated. One way this could occur is if one name was preserved continuously by indigenous peoples, while the other came indirectly through foreign legends. An example of this can be found when Solon learned from the Egyptians the legend of Atlantis, which is now believed to be an imperfect recollection of the Minoan civilization. The Greeks knew about the Minoans independently from their own traditions, and they never thought of identifying the Atlanteans with the Minoans.

Et idcirco vocatum est nomen eius Babel, quia ibi confusum est labium universae terrae, et inde dispersit eos Dominus super faciem cunctarum regionum. (11:9)

The sacred author states that the confusion of tongues was the reason the city was named Babel. We should point out that the ancient notion of causality was much broader than our mechanical idea of cause preceding effect. Aristotle later articulated four distinct kinds of causes, none of which were his inventions, but merely descriptions of the different ways people already understood what it meant to cause something. The name Babel has other historical origins, but its similarity to the Hebrew word "to confuse" is sufficient grounds for the author to say that this is why the city was so named. It does not concern the author that, by his own account, the confusion of tongues took place after the building (and presumably the naming) of the city. He is not concerned with temporal, efficient causality, but with final causality, where everything happens for some end or purpose. God knew that this city would be confused in speech even before it was built and named. From a theistic perspective, no event is accidental and there are no coincidences. The name of this city is the origin of our word "babble", serving as a continual reminder of human folly.

Babel is also the site from which these people were dispersed all over the earth. Indeed, there are no people who can be identified as "Akkadians" after the Gutian period, but only various Semitic peoples who spoke some form of Akkadian, among whom the Babylonians are the most famous. The Babylonians would try to replicate the feats of the Akkadians, by completing the tower, building a great city and a name for themselves, and placing faith in the false immortality achieved through their works. Yet language-based nationalisms would divide that empire, and a truly united culture could not be established.

Hae generationes Sem. (11:10)

The genealogy from Shem to Terah is structured almost identically to that of the first ten patriarchs from Adam to Noah. First, there is an introduction, "These are the generations of...", followed by the age of each patriarch at the birth of his son, the name of his son, the length of his remaining years, plus the fact that he had other sons and daughters. (In the first genealogy, there was also mention of the total lifespan of each patriarch.) In both genealogies, the last patriarch is declared to have become the father of three sons, apparently simultaneously. Then a more detailed narrative ensues concerning the last patriarch and his sons. On the strength of this analogy, we infer that Terah, not Abraham, is the last patriarch of this genealogy. There would only be nine patriarchs from Shem to Terah if we did not include Cainan after Arphaxad, as the Septuagint does. Christians may note that this patriarch Cainan is included in the genealogy of St. Luke's gospel. Most modern scholars, secular and religious, regard Cainan as a later insertion, notwithstanding the fact that without it there would only be nine patriarchs instead of the mnemonic ten that is typical of such stylized lists.

Most scholars also reject the Septuagint version of the patriarchs' ages at the birth of their sons, on the grounds that these figures are too regular, and therefore artificial, while the Massoretic and Samaritan numbers are much more chaotic. This would be a sound argument if the numbers were supposed to represent individual natural lifespans. On the other hand, if the numbers were intended to represent an artificial scheme, we should expect the Septuagint numbers to be closer to the original. It is therefore strange that many of the same analysts who believe the Genesis numbers to be a schematic artifice should reject the Septuagint numbers because of their numeric regularity. As we shall see, the Septuagint chronology is quite consistent with the historical record, while the Massoretic and Samaritan numbers are, as far as we can tell, meaningless. It is easy to lose a cipher representing 100 by accident, while adding one would be an act of deliberate distortion. The Samaritans have reduced some ages by a hundred years, and not others, while the Massoretic text lost most of these ciphers. If the Septuagint translators deliberately increased the ages by 100 to fit some scheme of theirs, it is incomprehensible why the Samaritans should have augmented some ages and not others, since no scheme was thereby established. The loss of ciphers by Jews and Samaritans is easily the more plausible hypothesis.

Following the Septuagint chronology, and assuming a 1660 B.C. entry of the Hebrews into Egypt, we obtain the following dates for the descendants of Shem:

Descendants of Shem
Arphaxad3020-2485 B.C.(2890-2355 B.C. omitting Cainan)
Cainan2885-2425 B.C.
Shelah2755-2295 B.C.
Eber2625-2221 B.C.
Peleg2491-2152 B.C.
Reu2361-2022 B.C.
Sarug2229-1899 B.C.
Nahor2099-1795 B.C.
Terah2020-1815 B.C.

Cainan was not mentioned in Genesis 10:24, but this is not a strong argument for omitting him here, since that table dealt with broader national categories than the clans enumerated in the genealogy of Chapter 11. Cainan's absence from Chapter 10 might explain why the Massoretic text has eliminated him from Chapter 11. Also, Cainan looks like a repetition from the genealogy from Adam to Noah, so later scribes may have "corrected" this error. We should note that in the first genealogy, Cainan (Kenan) is the fourth patriarch from Adam, but here he is the third from Shem.

The Akkadian period has been dated around 2371-2230 B.C., so omitting Cainan would give a better chronology for Arphaxad represented the Sumerians, whose rule ended with the rise of Akkad. However, the Sumerians that the Akkadians deposed were remnants of an antediluvian people, and not Semites by any reckoning. Secular history cannot definitively resolve the question of Cainan any more than textual analysis, so both sets of dates are listed above.

The Akkadian period (2371-2230 B.C.) does fit squarely within the time of Peleg (2491-2152 B.C.), with enough time to spare to cover the ensuing dispersion of peoples after the confusion at Babel, which coincides with the Gutian invasions.

Eber's dates (2625-2221 B.C.) closely match the duration of Ebla from the twenty-seventh century B.C. to the city's destruction by Naram-Sin around 2250 B.C. This reinforces the idea that Eber is some Eblaite clan, and Eber's descendants, the Israelites and southern Arabian tribes, all came from this west Semitic culture. Thus the Hebrew cultural traditions began to diverge from the Sumerian/Babylonian culture as early as 2600 B.C., if not earlier, for Shelah remains unidentified. The Hebrews took their name from Eber (Heber), as evidenced by the otherwise peculiar emphasis that Shem was "ancestor of all the children of Eber," (10:21) at the beginning of the Semitic table of nations.

A geographical analysis of the descendents of Eber shows a heavy concentration in northwestern Mesopotamia. Peleg's city was most probably Phalgu, where the Chaboras empties into the Euphrates. Reu is furthest east, likely corresponding to Railu, on an island in the Euphrates near the modern city of 'Anah. The site of Haran on the Balikh river is well known, and the Mari tablets indicate that Nakhur, or Nahor is in the same valley, below Haran. Terah (Turahi, Turahu) and Serug (Sarugi) are also in the vicinity of Haran, the latter being situated to the west. Ebla is twenty-five kilometers south of the modern city of Idleb. All of the above cities, with the exception of Reu, are located in modern Syria. A table of distances from other known cities (in miles) is given below.

Distances Between Cities (in miles)

Cities named after Serug, Terah, and Nahor are all in the vicinity of Haran, of negligible distance for our purposes. We see that all of Eber's descendants lived considerably closer to Ebla than to Ur, and only Reu ventured closer to Babylon than to Ebla. Thus Ebla was almost certainly a stronger cultural influence than Babylon upon the ancestors of the Hebrews. In particular, it is unlikely that the "Ur of the Khaldis" where Abraham was born was the Sumerian Ur, hundreds of miles distant. The journey to Ur would have been as remarkable as any of Abraham's migrations, but no such odyssey is mentioned. From geographic and cultural considerations, it is more likely that Abraham's Ur was Urfa in modern Turkey, which boasts a tradition of being the birthplace of Abraham. Indeed, tablets at Ebla mention a city called Ur situated in the land of Haran. Several cities had this name, for it simply means "city". To distinguish one Ur from another, a qualifying phrase was needed, such as "of the Khaldis". This phrase has been generally understood to mean "of the Chaldees", or Babylonians, leading to the erroneous identification of an Ur in southern Mesopotamia. Moreover, the Chaldeans (Babylonians) did not exist in Abraham's time. Secular scholars regard this as evidence that the Biblical account is ahistorical, when an equally obvious conclusion would be that the location of Ur in southern Mesopotamia is wrong.

Urfa, on the other hand, is close to the other patriarchal cities, but further north. Here resided the Hurrians, who had many curious traditions, among which was the custom of referring to nations and individuals interchangeably. They also had the habit of referring to their gods as "the Khaldises". So the qualifying phrase "of the Khaldis" may just as easily (in fact, more easily, given the then-absence of Chaldeans) have been used to indicate a Hurrian city in the northwest. Once again, the archaeological evidence is consistent with an independent paleo-Hebraic tradition based in the northwest of the Fertile Crescent.

Mortuusque est Aran ante Thare patrem suum in terra navitatis suae in Ur Chaldeorum. (11:28)

Haran dies in the land of the Khaldis, where he was born. It is here also that Abram and Lot take wives. We note that Terah takes with him not only Abram, but also Haran's son Lot. Terah treats Lot as his own son to mitigate the loss of Haran, so Abram and Lot become as brothers, though technically Lot is Abram's nephew.

Tulit itaque Thare, Abram... et eduxit eos de Ur Chaldeorum ut irent in terram Chanaan; venerunt que usque Haran et habitaverunt ibi. (11:31)

The intended destination from Ur was the land of Canaan, but they only went as far as Haran. It would have been a highly circuitous route from Sumerian Ur to Canaan via Haran, but Haran is directly on the route to Canaan from Hurrian Ur of the north. The reason for Terah's stopping at Haran is not revealed.

Et facti sunt dies Thare ducentorum quinque annorum et mortuus est in Haran. (11:32)

Some translators of the Septuagint have implied that Terah lived 205 years in Haran, but the general understanding has been that this number refers to all the days of his life. Of course, Terah did spend all the days of his life in the land of Haran, since Ur was in the same valley. In fact, Eblaite tablets speak of this Ur as being in the "land of Haran". These 205 years need not refer to a biological age, but to the duration of Terah's "government" of the clan.

The passage ends with Terah's death in Haran, so we may conclude that Abraham departed from Haran after his father's death, even though the years of Terah extend beyond the date of the call of Abraham. Samaritan scribes concerned with biological literalism tried to "correct" the text by reducing Terah's lifespan to 145 years. This editorial action shows that the ancient scribes understood that Abram's departure from Haran took place after his father's death. This is consistent with the plainest reading of the text and with the character of a dutiful son. Only Terah's weakness, whatever it was, prevented him from continuing to Canaan. God did not ask Abram to continue to journey in defiance of his father, but only when he became the legitimate head of the family. Thus the house of Israel would not be founded on an act of rebellion.

Chapters 12-13 - The Call of Abraham

The first eleven chapters of Genesis covered a dizzying span of time from the creation of the Universe until around 2000 B.C. Now, it turns to a detailed narrative of the life of Abraham after he was called by God. This narrative will extend through the 24th chapter, so we know more about the life of Abraham than of any other patriarch. Some commentators have said that history in the ordinary sense begins in the Bible with Abraham. The transition is not that simple, for, as we have seen, the earlier chapters of Genesis are in fact historical, but they use the language of oral histories and refer to nations, clans, and their progenitors with full equivalence. Some of this language will persist in Genesis after Abraham, but the preponderance of textual evidence suggests we are henceforth dealing primarily with individuals.

Dixit autem Dominus ad Abram, 'Egredere de terra tua et de cognatione tua et de domo patris tui in terram quam monstrabo tibi. (12:1)

The beginning of "ordinary" history, that is, history which resonates with Western thought, does not imply even a mild secularization of the Bible. The history of Israel, and of man's salvation, begins with a direct command from God to a man of impeccable faith. Abram is called by God to leave his relatives and the house of his father (for his father is dead) behind, and enter a land he has never seen before. As the New Testament attests (e.g., John 8:39, Romans 4:3, Galatians 3:6), the great work of Abraham was the work of believing, and it is upon simple, trusting faith in God that the nation of Israel would be founded.

In the light of the New Testament, we can see that the Bible contains the history of the nation of Israel only incidentally, as it pertains to salvation history. This is why, in later books, much historical detail is omitted (referring the reader to the royal chronicles in several instances). This also explains why Abraham is such an important figure, notwithstanding the fact that he precedes Israel by two generations. Israelites regarded Abraham as their father, rather than Terah or Isaac, or even Jacob/Israel himself, because of the faith they inherited from him. Jesus would remind the Jews that Abraham is their father on account of faith, not because of carnal descent (e.g., Matt. 3:9, John 8).

Faciamque te in gentem magnam, et benedicam tibi et magnificabo nomen tuum erisque benedictus. (12:2)

Abraham is closely identified with the nation he will engender, but he is clearly a distinct individual, since the nation will be named Israel, not Abraham. Thus, the magnification of Abraham's name can come only in his descendants' recognition of him as their ancestor in faith. His name will be remembered as that of a man, not a nation.

Benedicam benedicentibus tibi et maledicam maledicentibus tibi atque in te benedicentur universae cognationes terrae. (12:3)

The call of Abraham is not properly a covenant, but a pure bounty or blessing from God, who offers these things without any conditions or caveats. Of course, these promises can only come about if Abraham perseveres in faith when he is tested later, demonstrating the salvific power of faith, but God foreknows that Abraham will persevere, and it is God who freely provides the grace of perseverance.

God will bless those who bless Abraham and curse those who curse him, since Abraham is the measure of faith among men, and a starting point of God's salvific plan for the earth. The promise that all nations will be blessed through Abraham is only fulfilled through Jesus Christ, for it is through His church that all nations have come to know the faith of Abraham and reap its fruits.

Abraham is said to have been seventy-five years old when he was called, an extraordinarily old age, considering all that is to follow. Similarly, Noah was said to have been six hundred years old when the Flood began, ancient even by antediluvian standards. In both cases, these uncharacteristically large figures may have been inserted for chronological reasons, so that the sum of ages in a genealogy spans the time elapsed between major events, in this case from the Flood to the Call of Abraham. These two events are major turning points in salvation history, so Biblical chronology is structured around them. Following our tentative chronology, supposing the conventionally assumed 1660 B.C. entry into Egypt, the Call of Abraham may be dated around 1950-1875 B.C., depending on whether we include the seventy-five years in our reckoning. We might choose the earlier date if there is reason to believe that the 75-year age at the Call is simply formulaic, as in Greek biographies that made the first defining event of a man's life take place at age forty. Also, recall that in the case of Noah we found that the more probable date for the Flood was at the beginning of his "age", while his six hundred years represent the span of time between the original Deluge and the last of the great floods. Similarly, 1950-1875 B.C. might represent the span of Abraham's life in Canaan and Egypt. This interpretation may argue for an earlier entry into Egypt, around 1735 B.C., and there are in fact historical reasons for this hypothesis, as we will discuss later. Regardless of which date we choose, the general timing of Abraham around 1900 B.C. matches well with the archaeological record. For example, there are pottery traces of a culture in Palestine spanning 200 years of the early second millenium B.C. that is unlike any culture that existed there before or since.

Tulitque Sarai uxorem suam et Loth filium fratris sui, universamque substantiam quam possederant et animas quas fecerant in Haran... (12:5)

This description of Abram's party places the patriarch at the head, with Lot as his follower and dependent. The pilgrims demonstrate their total commitment by bringing all their possessions, as well as many servants. It may be that "the souls they had gotten in Haran" is not confined to the servant class, for the Hebrews had no qualms about referring to "servants" as such, yet that word is omitted here. We might infer that Abram had other followers as well, who submitted to him as leader rather than master. These retainers might still be considered within the house of Abraham even if they had no close blood relation. Jesus would later admonish the Jews against placing too much confidence in their blood descent from Abraham, and instead emphasized the importance of sharing Abraham's faith.

Apparuitque Dominus Abram et dixit ei, 'Semini tuo dabo terram hanc,' qui aedificavit ibi altare Domino aparruerat ei. (12:7)

This is the first instance where Scripture unambiguously states that God has appeared to a man. It may seem strange that such a remarkable event is treated so cursorily, unless one considers that the author is simply recounting an existing tradition. Further, a detailed description of the apparition might be either impossible or superfluous, for God's supernatural qualities cannot be contained in natural terminology, and the exposition of God's Word has been taking place throughout the Scriptures, so that there is no special need to dwell on the divine qualities here. The purpose of the narrative, and the apparition it describes, is simply to promise the land of Canaan to Abraham's descendants. That the Lord of heaven and earth should have personally revealed Himself to make this promise renders unmistakable the magnitude of this nation's importance. Just as God reveals Himself more clearly by appearing to Abram rather than merely speaking, so the land of Canaan is now seen more clearly than a vague destination, so the original promise of God's Call is also clarified. Once again, nothing is exacted from Abram, but he freely offers sacrifice to the Lord. The model of faith is a willing subservience to the Divine Will, an unhesitating trust in God's providence, and grateful acceptance of the gifts that God freely bestows.

Et inde transgrediens ad montem qui erat contra orientem Bethel, tetendit ibi tabernaculum suum, ab occidente habens Bethel et ab oriente Ai, aedificavit quoque ibi altare Domino et invocavit nomen eius. (12:8)

At the mount of Shechem, Abram is shown God's promise to Israel. He then travels to Bethel, where he "pitches his tent," or settles. On a mount between Bethel and Ai, he builds an altar to the Lord, apparently addresing Him with the Divine Name.

Abram subsequently departs toward the "wilderness", meaning the Negeb desert to the south. The reason for this migration is unclear, but his subsequent sojourn in Egypt is the result of famine. We note that during his first stay in Palestine, Abram is not said to have offered tribute to anyone in the land, even though Canaanites abided in the land at that time.

Our chronology would place Abram's sojourn in Egypt squarely within the Twelfth Dynasty. Modern Egyptian chronologies vary considerably, due to overlapping reigns, chaotic intermediate periods, conflicting and corrupted source texts, and dates that were erroneously fixed in modern times using the since discredited theory of the Sothic cycle. Nonetheless, it is reasonably certain that conventional chronologies for this period are accurate within a century, often a half- century or better. The king of Egypt in 1875 B.C. was (by Finegan's chronology) Sesotris III. The title "Pharaoh" did not come in use until the New Kingdom, near the time of Moses, so its use here is a retrojection. This anachronistic term is not an inaccuracy, for in the time of Moses, "Pharaoh" was synonomous with "king of Egypt", so the sacred author simply uses the language of his day to convey his meaning. The mention of domesticated camels (12:16) is thought by many scholars to be anachronistic, but evidence has come into light that camels were indeed used by humans during the Middle Bronze Age.

Abram's wife Sarai is depicted as exceedingly beautiful, even though Abram is said to be seventy-five years of age. We may resolve this age problem either by taking the age of Abram to be figurative or approximate, or by noting that Sarai may have been much younger than her husband. As evidence that Abraham's age is somewhat figurative, consider the fact that the narrator finds nothing remarkable about him fathering Ishmael at the age of eighty-six. It is possible that these high ages result from a schematic chronology, so that Abraham would father Isaac at a round one hundred years, a shorthand for extreme age. Elsewhere, Sarah is said to be ten years younger than Abraham (17:17). Supposing the actual biological ages of Abraham and Sarah at the birth of Isaac to be, say, seventy and sixty respectively, we might then infer that their ages at the time of the departure from Haran were forty-five and thirty-five. The sojourn in Egypt seems to have taken place about a year later, so Sarai would be thirty-six years old. We can extract a biologically plausible chronology from the Biblical data if we accept that Biblical chronologies are constructed to measure intervals between events, while the ages of individuals are merely numerical placeholders to keep the chronology self-consistent.

Dic ergo, obsecro te, quod soror mea sis, ut bene sit mihi propter te et vivat anima mea ob gratiam tui. (12:13)

Fearful that the Egyptians will slay him in order to claim his wife, Abram entreats Sarai to pretend to be his sister. In the Hurrian culture of that time, it was an honor for a favored wife could be raised to the status of adopted sister, so Abram was by no means maligning his wife. While the mere fact that an event is narrated in the Bible does not imply moral approval, there is little question of serious wrongdoing on Abram's part in this instance, since his deception is performed under threat of death, and he does not diminish Sarai's status in any way. Moreover, Sarai freely assents to the masquerade, as evidenced by Abram's pleading with her. The real evildoer is Pharaoh, who supposes he can take any wife he pleases. The king's subsequent disgust that he had taken an already married woman as his wife is somewhat hypocritical, as he had no qualms about forcibly taking a man's sister as his wife. It is only after God sends plagues upon Pharaoh (12:17) that he lets them go freely. Had these calamities not terrified him so, he would have certainly killed Abram upon learning that Sarai was his wife. (12:12)

Abram and Sarai had been forced to enter Egypt because of famine. In order for both to survive in Egypt, they needed to hide the fact of their marriage, or Abram would be killed and Sarai abducted. By pretending that Sarai was his sister, Abram could satisfy would-be suitors with a prolonged betrothal until they left Egypt. Unexpectedly, Pharoah himself sought Sarai as his wife, and so she was taken to the palace for the period of betrothal, as was customary. This unanticipated complication prevented them from leaving Egypt. Had Abram wished merely to enrich himself, he could have left Egypt without Sarai.

The Lord punishes Pharaoh severely, and somehow the king realizes that Sarai is Abram's wife, either because the plague was of a sexual nature, or some religious insight enabled him to recognize the divine punishment and its cause. His complaint against Abram is that he could have been spared the plagues had Abram not deceived him. This is dubious, for in that case, Abram would have been killed and Sarai taken as Pharaoh's wife, a scenario which would incur even greater divine wrath. God's intervention transforms a no-win scenario into a prosperous turn of events for the patriarch and his wife, as they leave Egypt with a great deal of wealth.

Reversusque est per iter quo venerat a meridie in Bethel, usque ad locum ubi prius fixerat tabernaculum inter Bethel et Ai... (13:3)

Here Bethel is regarded as being part of the southern wilderness, which might make the earlier migration from Bethel to the south (12:9) to have been an insignificant distance, were it not for the emphasis word "ultra". Lot is mentioned in the return from Egypt (13:1), indicating he participated in the sojourn. The return from Egypt to the tabernacle is the mirror image of the descent into Egypt; the respective passages reflect each other step by step. The only lasting effect of the sojourn, in the end, was to build a great base of wealth, though the original intent was mere survival.

Lot apparently amassed some wealth of his own while in Egypt, so that his herds and Abram's now grazed the same lands. Abram wisely suggests that they separate, allowing Lot to choose first which lands he will occupy. Lot chooses the watered country about Jordan, and the narrator interjects that this was before the Lord destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah. The relevance is obvious, for after that cataclysm, the area became a desert waste, as was well-known by Greco-Roman times. Geological evidence suggests that the southern plain by the Dead Sea was once lush in early historical times.

Lot sets up camp in Sodom, while the Lord reaffirms His promise to Abram that all the land he sees before him will belong to his posterity. This time the bounds of this land are more specified: he will have all that is visible from the mount between Bethel and Ai. We see in these progressive repetitions that each time a bit more detail is added. Note the strict use of YHVH throughout this Abrahamic narrative thus far. Apparently the "Elohist" had nothing to say about the call of Abraham and God's initial promise to him.

Chapter 14 - Battle of the Cities on the Plain

Although the division of Genesis into Yahwist and Elohist authors is unnecessary and problematic, there remains the likelihood that the sacred author had recourse to several written sources in composing his work. The fourteenth chapter is likely based on a written document from pagan history, judging from its content and its incidental reference to Abram. Nonetheless, the sacred author imposes his own stamp on this foreign source, explicating the religious significance of these events.

Factum est autem in illo tempore ut Amrafel rex Sennar et Arioch rex Ponti et Chodorlahomor rex Aelamitarum et Thadal rex Gentium... (14:1)

This verse contains one of the most perplexing archaeological puzzles of the Bible, as it juxtaposes several strange names and kingdoms identified as contemporaries. Some fallacious modern theories have impeded the identification of these kings, the most notorious error being the false identification of Amraphel as Hammurabi. Moreover, those who attempt to date Abraham around 2300 B.C. are inadvertently relying upon outdated Mesopotamian chronologies, which dated Hammurabi several centuries earlier than is presently accepted. Another false lead was the suggestion that Arioch might be Eri- Aku, Sumerian meaning "servant of Aku". In Akkadian, the moon-goddess Aku is called Sin, and many kings of Larsa, and Bur-Sin of Isin, adopted the Akkadian version of this name, lending this theory some plausibility.

The name Arioch is best identified as Hurrian, and Amraphel as Amorite, consistent with the identification of their respective kingdoms of Pontus and Shinar (Sumer/Babylonia). Tudal seems to be a Hittite name. The identification of Chedorlaomer the Elamite has been the most controversial. Some Septuagint texts read Chedorlagomer, which is an authentic Elamite name meaning "servant of the goddess Lagomer." Since Elam was east of Mesopotamia, this would imply an alliance of nations stretching from modern Turkey to Persia, formed for the sole purpose of attacking some Palestinian cities. Even if we accept the archaeological evidence that the "cities on the plain" were quite populous, such an alliance seems rather farfetched. However, there is no reason to suppose that this Elamite king is a king of Elam proper, for during this period the Elamites exerted wide influence in central and western Mesopotamia, installing their own vassal kings. If Chedorlagomer was such a vassal, this would imply a considerably more local alliance of kings, though still impressive. There is substantial evidence that Mesopotamians of this period meddled in Palestinian affairs. As this is all that may be deduced about these kings with any confidence, let us now proceed to the "cities on the plain."

...inirent bellum contra Bara regem Sodomorum et contra Bersa regem Gomorrae et contra Senaab regem Adamae et contra Semeber regem Seboim contraque regem Balae ipsa est Segor. (14:2)

These five cities are historical, not legendary, as evidenced by the plain narrative style of the text, and external evidence such as the Ebla tablet (#1860) from which some archaeologists have translated the names of the five cities in the order listed above. Excavation in the southern end of the Dead Sea has yielded a superabundance of possible 'Sodoms', though it was formerly held that this area had been uninhabitable in antiquity. The population of this area easily exceeded a quarter of a million people, making the cities collectively a major trading power, hence the need for a coalition of kings to oppose them. The evidence of the Ebla tablet, if valid, would argue for a later date of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, after 1900 B.C., consistent with our chronology.

Omnes hii convenerunt in vallem Silvestrem quae nunc est mare Salis. (14:3)

This concise statement has important implications, as it alludes to the fact that the southern end of the Dead Sea was once dry land in historical times. It may also imply that some or all of the cities of the Plain are presently underwater, though we need not assume that the site at which the armies met was in the immediate vicinity of the cities being defended.

...et tertiodecimo anno recesserunt ab eo. (14:4)

Only after serving Chodorlagomor for twelve years (14:4) do these kings rebel.

...percusseruntque Rafaim in Astharothcarnaim et Zuzim cum eis, et Emim in Savecariathaim et Chorreos in montibus Seir... (14:5)

The Elamite and his allies advance into the region, defeating other peoples along the way, notably the Hurrians, Amalekites, and some Amorites, among others. The Hurrians would seem to be in the north, thus it is only after the four kings turn back (14:7) that they proceed to defeat the Amalekites and Amorites, who live towards the south.

The kings of the cities of the plain appear to have been on the worse end of the battle (if indeed they engaged in battle at all), for the kings of Sodom and Gomorrah (and their men, presumably) fled and fell into bitumen pits, "while the rest fled to the mountains." (14:11) Sodom and Gomorrah were plundered, and among the spoils were the person and property of Lot, who had been living in Sodom. (14:12)

Et ecce unus qui evaserat nuntiavit Abram Hebraeo... (14:13)

This exceptional use of the term "Hebrew" to describe Abraham is seen by many as evidence that the source text used for this passage is of gentile origin, for such an appellation was used only by foreigners, and in a somewhat derogatory manner. Those who acknowledge Mosaic authorship may freely admit that Moses used source texts for the histories preceding his time, choosing only what divine inspiration revealed as being free from error. With such a guarantee, it is irrelevant whether the source texts were Hebrew or gentile in origin, since their authority derives not from their value as human works, but from the fact of the inspiration of Moses in composing the Pentateuch. In any event, the gentile voice certainly ends a few verses later with the mention of Melchizedek, as it seems highly unlikely a foreigner would have found any value in such a narrative.

We are also told that Abraham is allied with some Amorites in the city of Mamre.

Quod cum audisset Abram captum videlicet Loth fratrem suum, numeravit expeditos vernaculos suos trecentos decem et octo, et persecutus est eos usque Dan. (14:14)

A couple of interesting points come out of this single verse. First, we notice that Lot is described as Abram's brother, when he is really his nephew, providing evidence of idiomatic usage of the term "brother" in Hebrew. This is relevant to discussing such passages as the "brethren" of Jesus.

Usage of the name Dan to identify a geographical region is not necessarily a post-Mosaic interpolation, as Moses himself alloted the lands to each tribe, according to the books of Deuteronomy and Joshua.

The most curious aspect of this verse is its mention of a mere 318 retainers who assist Abram in defeating Chodorlagomer and company. There are many creative ways to resolve this difficulty, but let us try to be as uncreative as possible. First, it is evident that the enumeration of Abram's retainers need not exclude others who fought with them, just as we do not suppose that the kings who are mentioned fought alone, without armies under their command. Yet, in the succeeding verse, again only Abram and his retainers are mentioned as attacking. They attack by night, unusual for those days, and perhaps justified by a huge disparity in numbers. No miraculous intervention is attested, so we cannot suppose a force of 318 could defeat, even with the advantage of surprise, a force in excess of 2000. Even if Abram's forces freed all the captives immediately, it is unrealistic to suppose that these could be readily armed for battle.

Plausibility demands that either the combined force of the four kings numbered only in the hundreds, or the numbers of Abram's army numbered in the thousands. Considering the circumstances of the time, the populations of the cities threatened, and the nations already defeated, it is extremely unlikely that the four kings could have succeeded with a small force, even accounting for heavy casualties, since the force was still large enough to make the Sodomites flee. The only reasonable assumption is that Abram had a much larger force, probably of his Amorite allies, under his command. That these warriors are not mentioned is wholly consistent with the style of narrative, which mentions only leaders rather than rank and file soldiers. The retainers of Abraham receive special mention as a consequence of the Hebrew custom of regarding servants as members of the household rather than mere possessions.

At vero Melchisedech rex Salem proferens panem et vinum; erat enim sacerdos Dei altissimi. (14:18)

The Ebla tablets mention Salim and Urusalim as distinct cities, though this translation is disputed. This is the only Biblical mention of Salem, save in the seventy-third psalm, where it may be more easily interpreted by its literal meaning, "peace". The proposition that Salem was originally the name of a deity is completely unfounded archaeologically and linguistically, and is perhaps reflective only of that scholarly foible of instinctively ascribing religious meaning to enigmatic artifacts and names. The ancient name of Jerusalem, Urusalim, would mean "city of salim", or "city of peace."

Though Melchisedek of Salem makes only a brief appearance, he is highly significant as a prefiguring of the priestly role of Christ, who is the ultimate "king of peace." The offering of bread and wine is also a remarkable foretelling of the rite Our Lord would establish, making Him a priest "in the order of Melchisedek," as the letter of Hebrews tells us. Melchisedek is a priest of God Most High (el-eloyim), clearly distinguishing him from pagan priests, and Abraham explicitly identifies the God of Melchisedek with his own Lord, YHVH. (14:22)

Chapter 15 - God's Covenant with Abraham

'...sed qui egredietur de utero tuo ipsum habebis heredem.' (15:4)

Abram does not place his hopes in an afterlife, but in his posterity, so he considers God's rewards to be futile if his house should die. With the benefit of hindsight, we know that God intended far greater rewards for Abraham, but this is not revealed to him. Instead, God promises that Abram's heir will be of his own issue, in distinction from his servant Eliezer. Thus the Israelite claim to descent from Abraham is to be taken literally. Although men of other houses may have joined the house of Israel through the ages, the nation in aggregate may claim genealogical descent from Abraham. God imposes no conditions upon Abraham for the fulfilment of this promise, though it appears to be a reward either for his earlier works or for leading a righteous life. While the Israelites may justly take pride in their descent from Abraham, he is also the father of a far greater people, the people of faith, because in response to God's promise, he "put his faith in the Lord, who credited to him as an act of righteousness." (15:6) The temporal reward of innumerable descendants will be surpassed by the spiritual reward of a role in the divine plan of salvation, to be elaborated later.

Dixitque ad eam, 'Sum ego Dominus qui eduxi te de Ur Chaldeorum ut darem tibi terram istam et possideres eam.' (15:7)

There is a strong parallelism here with the beginning of the Decalogue. This formula begins God's covenant with Abraham, in a form identifiable to the people of the time, that of a contract in which the first party reminds the second of past services rendered, and now outlines future courses of action. Millenia before He humbled Himself to partake of our humanity, God condescended to outline His salvific plan in plain human terms, even with the cultural trappings then existent.

Abraham's response calls into question the manner in which God "spoke" to him, for he asks, "how am I to know that I shall possess it?" (15:8) It would be gross incongruity for Abraham, the paragon of faith, or even a man of lesser faith, to regard God's audibly spoken Word as insufficient proof. This request for proof suggests that God did not speak to Abraham in an audible manner, as He later would before Moses. We may further surmise that His initial communications with the patriarch were a less explicit revelation than those signs revealed by the prescribed ritual, though nonetheless quite real, as the authority of Scripture attests.

The ritual of splitting animals in half was known in the ancient world as a means of ratifying agreements, during which the parties passed between the split victims, asking that the same fate should befall them if they should break their word. In this case, however, Abram is apparently not required to pass between the split animals, for he is not asked to make any statement. The trance that falls upon Abram is described as an external reality seizing upon him, making what follows a direct supernatural revelation.

Dictumque est ad eum, 'Scito praenoscens quod peregrinum futurum sit semen tuum in terra non sua et subicient eos servituti adfligent quadringentis annis.'" (15:13)

There are several ways to interpret the "four hundred years" of servitude mentioned here. One way is to begin the period with the birth of Isaac (c. 1850 B.C. by our chronology), and end with the beginning of the exodus from Egypt. This is problematic because the descendants of Abraham were hardly enslaved or oppressed during their sojourn in Canaan, though it must be remembered that much of Canaan was in the Egyptian sphere of influence, and thus this land never truly belonged to the Hebrews.

Another interpretation restricts this period to Israel's later sojourn in Egypt, with the "hundred year" time periods simply being an idiom for long periods of time, as evidenced by the parallel usage of "four generations." (15:16) Moses is later said to be a fourth generation descendant of Jacob, and the word for "generation" can be used to denote some ambiguous time period.

Overall, this passage is not very helpful for chronological purposes (unless stronger arguments could be given for the first interpretation), but it does serve the purpose of assuring Abraham with knowledge that would give him the greatest comfort, in the absence of hope in an afterlife. In His unbounded love for His servant, God personally gave Abraham the most perfect assurance he could appreciate. In the form of fire and smoke, He passed His Presence between the split carcasses, affirming unequivocally that all that was revealed would come to pass. Abraham, through his descendants, would possess all the land between Egypt and the Euphrates.

Chapter 16 - The Birth of Ishmael

Not understanding that God would fulfill His promise to Abraham through supernatural means, the patriarch employed the customs of his day to produce an heir. Since his wife was barren, he resorted to his Egyptian concubine Hagar.

Tulit Agar Aegyptiam ancillam suam post annos decem quam habitare coeperant in terra Chanaan et dedit eam viro suo uxorem. (16:3)

Sarai gave her explicit approval for this arrangement, since any child that resulted would belong to the mistress of the household, per the custom of the time. Absolute monogamy was unusual in those days, and a marital bond was not considered breached if the wife approved of concubinage. She gave Hagar to Abraham because of her own barrenness, so the child would become her own, in compensation for waiving her claim to exclusive relations with her husbands. Such laws have been preserved into modern times by some Eastern peoples. As strange as these laws may seem to some, there is a certain logic and fairness to them, though they may be faulted with not giving the marital bond the inviolability it merits. Our purpose here is not to give approval to these customs, but to provide a context by which Sarai's subsequent abuse of Hagar may be understood.

Setting aside our moral concerns about concubinage, it is clear that Hagar had committed a tremendous breach of confidence by regarding Sarai disdainfully. Sarai's outrage is evidence that she did not take her marital prerogatives lightly, contrary to what her consent to concubinage might suggest to us.

Dixitque ei angelus Domini, 'Revertere ad dominam tuam et humiliare sub manibus ipsius.' (16:9)

An "angel of the Lord" appears to the expelled Hagar, urging her to return to her mistress and submit to her abuse. The Latin term humiliare eloquently conveys the sentiment of submissiveness. Without necessarily condoning the abuse, humility demands that she accept it.

Hagar is to be consoled in another way, for the "angel", who is in fact a manifestation of God Himself, will multiply her descendants through Ishmael, who is born eleven years after the departure from Haran. Abraham's biological age is now about fifty-six years by our reckoning, so there is nothing miraculous about this birth.

Many scholars consider the apparent incongruity between Abraham's advanced nominal (Biblical) age and the acts that are attributed to him as evidence that two versions of the Abrahamic narrative have been interwoven. However, the entire chronology of the Abrahamic narrative is internally self-consistent. Since the Call of Abram was nominally at age seventy-five, it follows that the entire history of Abraham should occur at a nominally advanced age. Thus the incongruity of Abraham's age is not a basis for splitting the narrative in two, though it is a basis for considering the possibility that the nominal ages are merely figurative.

If we suppose that these numbers are figurative, perhaps based on a rounded estimate of Abraham's age as 100 at the birth of Isaac, we can derive a set of probable biological ages by scaling back about thirty years. Tentatively, we might have the birth of Abraham in 1920 B.C., the Call in 1875 B.C., followed by a year in Egypt, then ten years in Canaan until the birth of Ishmael in 1864 B.C.

Continue to Chapter 17

© 2006 Daniel J. Castellano. All rights reserved. http://www.arcaneknowledge.org

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