OT History Part 2: Patriarchal Period: 2166-1527 BC

Table of Contents

Chapter 2.1: Birth of Redemption

Epilogue to Creation, Prologue to Redemption

No other part of the Bible has generated so much controversy as Genesis 1-11. Whole libraries have been written on various aspects of these chapters. For some 25 years, the debate between believers and non-believers got media attention and gave rise to the term "Scientific Creationism." This described a school of thought that tried to make the biblical account plausible enough to find a place in public school curricula. The effort had little success long term. A more recent movement is called "Intelligent Design," which stands equally poor chances of acceptance on both scientific and philosophical grounds.

Even more importantly, we recognize that what is recorded in these first few pages of Genesis sets the stage for all that follows. We could wish the ancient Hebrew record keeping included more precise descriptions of the circumstances of these events. That would accord nicely with our Western thinking. We could further wish for a record of other events surrounding the ones preserved for us. The Hebrew writers took for granted a great deal of reader knowledge, knowledge lost to us today. In spite of the dearth of details, we still find enough to make sense of the rest of the story, if we set aside our own prejudices and cultural arrogance and simply listen to the ancient voices in their own context.

It cannot be said enough that efforts to convince by logic are a waste of time. The best we can hope for is a claim that our faith is reasonable and deserves a place at the table in human decision making. Even then, history indicates we gain little or nothing from that. While such a study helps clarify things nicely for us standing on the inside of the faith, it cannot do much for those outside. Only the Holy Spirit can move a heart to faith.

The Call of Abram

Abraham is the archetype of the Man of Faith. Yet this image of him came as the result of trials and much error. He was born in a culture we scarcely understand simply for lack of information. He gave birth to a new culture many do not understand for lack of trying, a failure to look beyond shallow and unexamined assumptions. We are introduced to him as Abram, living in the Lower Mesopotamian Valley.

It was no doubt due in part to the instability of the earth's crust that so many large tribal groups would simply pick up and migrate long distances to re-settle in some other land. Archaeology tells us that sometime after the continental separation, the Sumerians appear to have moved from Central Asia and settled in the Lower Mesopotamian Valley. Arriving around 3500 BC, they were one of many groups to build cities, along with dikes and canals. They developed a rather high culture and written alphabet, today called it cuneiform.

This culture included building and rebuilding the old Babylonian style ziggurats. Each of their large cities was dedicated to at least one of their numerous nature deities. Sumer was a small empire of city-states ruled by a royal priestly caste. When the Akkadians rose to conquer them, they built their own, much larger empire. They seem to have adopted the whole culture of the Sumerians, except for the language. They hardly destroyed the Sumerian people. The Akkadians simply took the place of the ruling class and rebuilt much of what was damaged in the conquest. This new empire was powerful, yet very unstable.

The Persian Gulf extended much farther inland in those days and the old Sumerian city of Ur would have been on the coast. It was here that Abram ("High Father") was born into one of the upper class Akkadian families, circa 2166 BC. He married his half-sister, Sarai (feminine of "Ruler"). Abram was the eldest of three brothers. The second was Nahor ("Snorer"). The third, Haran ("Mountaineer"), died before the family made their move north, but not before he sired a son, Lot ("Veil").

A century before their departure the Akkadian Empire was falling apart. As the central imperial control was loosened, the southern coastal city of Ur rose to prominence as the greatest city in Mesopotamia. To their east, in the foothills of the Zagros Mountain Range, was the rising Elamite Kingdom. Ur's prominence served only to provoke conquest and destruction by the neighboring Elamite princes, who were ambitious to displace the old Akkadian power.

It was probably due in part to the rising tensions among the southern cities of Mesopotamia that Terah decided to move to the northern city of Haran, more accurately spelled Charan ("Road"). There is also evidence of catastrophic destruction due to a massive meteorite strike in the area about that time, from which God wanted to save them. Both Ur and Charan were dedicated to the worship of the moon goddess, Sin. There is strong evidence that Terah was one of the high priests in her service. His extended family household could have constituted the whole population and property of a substantial village. There would have been slaves and servants to keep the facilities, as well as care for the mixture of herd animals and perhaps some farming. Under ideal circumstances, the move would have taken months, covering a distance of some 550 miles up the Euphrates River (Genesis 11:27-32).

Thus, while God had called Abram to leave Ur (Genesis 15:7), for reasons we can only guess, his father moved the entire household, as well. We can safely infer that Abram stayed in Charan awhile before he realized that he had not fully carried out that calling.

Chapter 2.2: Covenant of Abraham

We have no way of knowing for sure, but it seems unlikely that Abram would have begun his part in the story as a firm believer, solely dedicated to Jehovah (the English form of Yahweh). Indeed, that name for God was first revealed to Moses, 700 years after Abram's time. Abram doubtless used the name El, or variations of that title, to refer to Him. At best, Abram probably knew Him as one of many gods. At any rate, Jehovah was able to make it clear to Abram what He required. At age 75, Abram was told to leave the civilization he knew and adopt the life-style ridiculed by the highly educated Akkadians: to become an "Amorite." The name was not so much a race of people as a type. To the Mesopotamian urbanites, tent-dwelling Amorites were filthy nomads who talked and dressed oddly. They produced nothing of value and probably stole the few trade goods the brought to sell at exorbitant prices. They had strange, barbaric customs.

Further, Abram was to leave behind his material inheritance. The vast estates of his father would pass to the younger brother. Nahor would later become rich enough to build a city of his own near Charan, bearing his name. Indeed, some travelers referred to Charan itself as the "City of Nahor." In return for leaving this all behind, Abram would inherit directly from Jehovah ownership of the whole land of Canaan for his descendants. As mentioned before, we have the first recorded incidence of Jehovah offering a personal relationship with an individual human.

Abram accepted this tremendous sacrifice, taking only his movable property and his nephew, Lot. In 2091 BC, Palestine was thinly populated by a mix of tribes known as Canaanites. These would have dwelt mostly along the sea coasts, the Jordan Valley and any year-round spring. The central highlands were heavily forested and unpopulated. After the long journey of some 220 miles, easily taking more than a year, Abram pitched his tents at the future site of the Jewish city of Shechem ("Ridgeline"), in the saddle between the twin peaks of Mt. Ebal and Mt. Gerizim. The site is referred to as the Oak of Moreh ("Oak of Teaching"), indicating that it was a well-known religious shrine. Abram built an altar to Jehovah there.

It appears that the bulk of Abram's worship practices were adapted from common Semitic rituals, but he may have been one of those religion scholars who knew something about the worship of "God Most High" (El Elyon). Seven centuries down the road, the Law of Moses would codify a great deal of the common practices already in place. It was the peculiar ethic of life, the values that were new and took Abram some 50 years to grasp.

Abram in Egypt

Genesis 12:10-20 -- As befitting the life of a shepherd-sheikh, Abram migrated from place to place around the Land of Canaan. He would naturally want to see the land Yahweh had said was his. Abram was quite wealthy by local standards. The region was given to recurrent droughts and nearby Egypt had long established her power largely because of the wealth arising from the Nile Valley agriculture. The Nile seldom suffered real drought. Egyptians had long since developed extensive irrigation, as well as flood control. Abram would have been one of many petty lords visiting Egypt looking to pasture herd animals in the Nile Delta.

This first recorded challenge to Abram's faith in his new life was a failure. Abram relied on deception when it was quite unnecessary. Had he trusted his God, he would have found himself quite safe in this very strange land, with a very strange and ancient culture.

It was common practice for local rulers to confiscate single women from less powerful lords' families. It was more of a ritual than and actual threat and taken as quite a compliment, since it signaled a desire for political alliance, as well as obligating the ruler to give large and expensive gifts as a dowry. The Egyptians were famous for their wealth and high culture, including a great lore of scholarship in magical arts and divination. Whatever it was that struck Pharaoh's household, he was able to divine the reason for the plague. He publicly censured Abram for his deception. Pharaoh's troops then escorted Abram's household to the northeastern border whence it came.

During Abram's lifetime, that border would have been a string of forts across the northern end of the Sinai Peninsula. They gave their name to the area and the road that strung them together: Shur, "The (Fortress) Wall." The last of these forts would have been very near the Negev, virtually a desert in the summer. The shepherd-sheikh would never have been in a hurry. At the end of some months, Abram was back at his first campsite, Shechem.

Aside from a very public embarrassment in Egypt, Abram fared rather well during his early period of adjustment to nomadic living. It would be many more tests and failures, more painful lessons before he became the man God had intended. In the end, he would become a symbol of faith to thousands of generations to follow.

Chapter 2.3: Abram, Lot and the Promise

Genesis 13-14 -- By this time, Abram's flocks and herds required too much range to share comfortably with Lot. His nephew had become a sheikh in his own right. Their respective herdsmen were beginning to fight over resources. Lot chose to dwell in the fertile Jordan Valley.

The Jordan River ran roughly 120 miles in a deep rift to the Dead Sea. South of the Dead Sea, the lowest point, the rift continued another 120 miles or so to the Gulf of Aqaba. In 2000 BC the Dead Sea was much shallower, almost unrecognizable from today. In the past, most scholars were convinced that the Pentapolis ("Five Cities") lay in the southern end of the Dead Sea: Sodom ("Volcanic"), Gomorrah ("Ruined Heap"), Admah ("Red" as in dirt), Zeboiim ("Beautiful Ones"), and Zoar ("Ignoble") or Bela (a single "Gulp"). Recent investigation now seems to indicate that they were scattered on the northeastern shore. The two largest cities, Sodom and Gomorrah, had already distinguished themselves in moral depravity among Canaanite cities. By degrees, Lot changed from Amorite shepherd-sheikh to urban dweller in Sodom.

Abram remained in the sparsely populated central highlands. Though Hebron was not built for another 300 years or more, it serves as the reference point to identify the location of lands used by the Amorite Mamre ("Lusty"). The site of Hebron today is 3040 feet (927 meters) above sea level and it may have afforded Abram a good view of part of the Pentapolis. He would have seen at least the smoke of destruction from the Mesopotamian invaders. Their raid on the area is placed at about 2080 BC, when Abram was 86 years old.

The Coalition invaders are easily identifiable with known historical figures. Chedorlaomer (or Kudar-Lagamer, "Servant of Lagamer") was probably a title, not a proper name. It indicated he served Lagamer, a patron deity of his people, the Elamites. Elam is a well-known region in the foothills of the Zagros Mountains, just east of Lower Mesopotamia, near the ancient Persian Gulf coast. The Elamites probably dominated the invading Coalition. Amraphel is mentioned as King of Shinar, a broad plain in Upper Mesopotamia. The name of the place was often applied by Hebrew writers to the whole of the region between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers. In this context, it seems to cover the middle portion of that. Arioch is a Babylonian title for the Lord of Ellasar, or Larsa, a major city in southern Babylon. Tidal ("Fearfulness") seems to have been a Canaanite mercenary warlord. He is called King of Goiim ("Nations" or "Gentiles"), indicating a mixed army for hire, not a place. The primary function of any king is warlord.

After conquering the cities of Lower Mesopotamia, including destroying Ur, the Coalition raided their way up the Mesopotamian Valley. After passing through Damascus, the Coalition struck the major power centers along the East Bank of the Jordan. The Rephaim ("Giants") of Ashtoreth-karnaim ("Astarte of the Double Horns," a reference to a symbol of power) in the Golan area are mentioned, along with the Zuzim ("Bigshots") of Ham in Gilead. Further south were the Emim ("Terrors") of Shaveh-kiriathaim ("Plain of the Twin Cities"). The Hebrew names for people were more of a description than identification. Finally, there were the Horites (Hurrians) in Mount Seir. These were non-Semites who established themselves around 2400 BC as strong rivals of the Sumerians and Hittites in culture and learning. They were later absorbed by the descendants of Esau (Edom). This raid hastened a decline into which the Horites had slipped some time earlier.

South and west of the Dead Sea, the Coalition made a sweep of just about every place that had anything of value. En-mishpat ("Fountain of Judgment") is identified with Kadesh-Barnea. The Hebrew scribe is careful to make the appropriate geographical references from his own era. El-paran ("Oak of Paran") is the area around Kadesh. There were tribes of the Amalekites and Amorites living near Hazazon-tamar ("Row of Palm Trees") as the raiders approached from the south their ostensible target in all this. The Hebrew writer explains that the Pentapolis had rebelled against the Coalition after twelve years of paying tribute. Part of their great wealth was due to petroleum tar, salts and rare metals, especially copper. The Coalition's objective was movable goods and captives, not destruction and perhaps to reassert their rule over the area.

Their captives included Lot and his household. As the Coalition headed north with all this, Abram was notified of his nephew's capture. In his own household, Abram had 318 trained professional fighters, as a sort of bodyguard, a good indication of his wealth and status at the time. He also had the help of fighters mobilized from the households of his neighbors and allies, Mamre, Eschol and Aner. It appears that Abram led the expedition himself. The Coalition camp was at the north end of the Jordan Rift Valley, a march of 120 miles. Catching up with them at the future site of Dan, called Laish at that time, Abram employed highly unusual tactics. Many pagan believers refused to fight at night, in fear that their souls would not find the way to their rest. Also, it was rare to divide one's army, when concentrated force was considered the key to winning. In the darkness, it would seem a much larger force coming from two sides. The Coalition army fled, leaving everything behind. The huge load of captured goods and slaves had forced them to travel slowly. Abram pursued them another hundred miles to Hobah, or Chobah ("Hiding Place").

Abram's motives were to fulfill his customary obligation to rescue a relative from slavery. He would have been loath to enrich himself with property from the likes of Sodom and Gomorrah, though it would certainly have been his customary right to do so. As commander of the rescuing army, he used his prerogatives to allow his allies their share of the plunder and to give a tithe to Melchizedek ("King of Righteousness"), who was priestly king of Salem ("Peace and Prosperity"), later Jerusalem. Abram and Melchizedek quickly recognized each other as fellow worshipers of El Elyon ("God Most High"). Nothing else is known of this priest and king. We also have no way of knowing how this city and its priest-king became a pagan stronghold in later times.

What we do see is Abram growing comfortable with the land promised to his descendants and his new life style.

The Promise

Genesis 15-17 -- Jehovah's next appearance confirmed the continuation of Abram's blood line. As was the custom, Abram had taken steps to bequeath his property to his chief servant, Eliezer ("God is my Helper") of Damascus. Jehovah had other plans. To solemnify the promise, Jehovah instructed Abram to prepare the Ritual of Covenant. This was widely used by Semitic tribes, usually to seal agreements between equals. We have nothing in modern life resembling covenants; considering them anything like contracts is absurd. Covenants were a deeper commitment of the person, rather than a simple commitment of impersonal resources.

Abram took one each of several animals -- later included under Kosher Law -- and cut them through at the midriff. The halves were arranged on either side of a sloped trench, so that their blood and other fluids flowed into a trough at the bottom. Normally, the participants would wade the length of the trough barefoot to signify the horrible consequences of breaking the covenant. In this case, Jehovah Himself passed alone through the trench. His presence was symbolized by a torch and a fire pot. For the descendants of Abram -- Israel -- these symbols came to mean light and heat, revelation and trial. This signified the prophecy of their later captivity in Egypt. Before the promise was fulfilled, the descendants of Abram must pass through severe testing of their faith, much as was the case with Abram. Yet, in that testing would the greatness and power of God be revealed.

This solemn vow by Jehovah was insufficient to prevent Abram from following customs of his time, as a sort of shortcut to a son. He impregnated a concubine designated by his barren wife. This half-way measure was a time-honored tradition, acceptable practice in Abram's time. It would hardly be contested by his relatives in Charan. However, it resulted in a very painful domestic situation. When tensions became too high for peace between Hagar and Sarai, Hagar was dismissed. The flight of the Egyptian slave, Hagar, pregnant with a legal heir would have been viewed as scandalous. Abram was legally obliged to treat her far better than a simple slave and should have restrained his wife's hand. Only God's gracious intervention prevented Abram destroying the great good will he had built up with the local population.

Ishmael ("God Hears") was born in the same year as the Coalition invasion. The events as related in the Bible overlap somewhat. Various threads are followed as separate stories because they came from different sources. Hebrews seldom rewrote narratives, but saw no problem with weaving them together with editorial comments. Thirteen years after Ishmael's birth, Jehovah instituted the rite of circumcision as a requirement for Abram and his family. While it was common in Egypt and with some Canaanites, Mesopotamians despised the practice as barbaric. Accepting this custom was yet another painful sacrifice for Abram, in more ways than one. It was to be done on the eighth day of life. For Israel, it became the day when males were presented to Jehovah and publicly named. For Abram, it was the day Jehovah changed his name to Abraham ("Father of a Multitude"). Sarai became Sarah ("Princess").

As is typical of Jehovah, he reaffirmed yet again His intentions via His covenant with Abraham. We do well to notice the time lag between the first revelation of that promise of an heir at age 75 and the final birth of that heir at 100. That's a quarter-century just for the first part of the promise. Abraham never did see the possession of the land in his lifetime, yet learned to regard that future promise as truth and act as though it were present possession. That no one else living in the land knew of it was a small matter.

Chapter 2.4: Abraham, Sodom and Abimelech

Genesis 18-19 -- For Abraham, now a century old, life was to become more pleasant. As his faith grew, his understanding and acceptance of Jehovah's plans put him less often in conflict with His purpose. Abraham laughed in marvel that Jehovah would give him a son at his age. His prayer for Ishmael, though misguided, was nevertheless answered in the affirmative. Three times in one year Jehovah visited Abraham. Even Sarah laughed, though in scorn.

She did so on the day Jehovah set for the final test of Sodom and Gomorrah, in 2067 BC. Abraham recognized the visitors immediately as emissaries of Jehovah. He reacted as a vassal to his Sovereign, lavishing his best on the visitors. During this visit, not only did Jehovah promise to bring about the birth of a legitimate heir for Abraham, He also included him in His counsel. Following normal protocol, Abraham prayed for reasonable limits on the extermination of the Pentapolis residents.

Lot, too, followed the customs of his people. While not a party to the Covenant, it is safe to assume Lot was generally as righteous as Abraham, especially in contrast to the Canaanites. Unlike the native Sodomites, he offered hospitality to the visitors. He probably did so all the more knowing who they were and how the Sodomites would behave. We are not told the reason why Lot had moved into the city. It is implied he did so out of a lack of commitment, which in turn was due to the apparent lack of calling, or at least lacking a sense of calling.

The sordid episode that followed served to explain to the Hebrew readers that the cataclysm in the Pentapolis was not a simple accident of nature. There were certainly natural elements involved, though. The seismic activity of the area, combined with the volatile mix of free sulfur and petroleum, was a disaster waiting to happen. Thus, a simple volcanic earthquake became a massive explosion. Super-heated salts and rock would have been thrown miles into the air to rain back down as flaming hail. As late as 2056 BC (nine years later), after-shocks and subsequent explosions still rocked the area.

All life and soil fertility in the area was extinguished, except for Lot and his daughters. They eventually hid in the caves high up the eastern side of the Rift Valley. Even in this escape, Lot manifested some of the immoral character of the Sodomites, though his culpability is somewhat assuaged by his daughters' determination. His daughters gave birth to boys, Moab ("From Father") and Ben-ammi ("Son of My People"). Thus, the Hebrew authors explain the genesis of two enemy nations: Moab and Ammon, who would later hold the eastern heights of the Lower Jordan Valley and of the Dead Sea.

The most obvious lesson is that sin can have far-reaching consequences that no one can predict. While we are properly loath to oppress another with our personal sense of right and wrong, there are some kinds of sin which can never be seen as merely a personal choice. The gross immorality of one generation can become multiplied to the detriment of numerous generations to come. It's a contagion of immense proportions.


Genesis 20-21 -- There's no doubt Abraham saw the destruction of the Pentapolis from the heights west of the Dead Sea. The disaster in the valley probably released a large amount of pollutants in the air. This may help explain Abraham's move downslope toward the Mediterranean Coast, after a stay in the south.

He had not yet learned from his experience in Egypt simply to trust Jehovah's protection. He committed the same lie to the local king, whose title was Abimelech ("Royal Father"). Once again, the pagan ruler is more honorable than the servant of Jehovah. Abimelech acted from the same customs as the Egyptians, seeking alliance with a very powerful prince. Both a dream and a plague of infertility in the royal household came to the king. His reaction to this was also similar to Pharaoh's, except that he offered to Abraham protected residence anywhere in his domain.

It was there in the lands of Abimelech that Isaac ("Laughter") was born. At age 16, Ishmael was afflicted with the same attitude as his mother. He harassed his younger half-brother without mercy. Abraham defied custom in sending Ishmael away from his inheritance. Sent away a second time, Hagar headed in the same direction as the last time she fled Abraham's household, toward her homeland in Egypt. She had barely managed to get 15 miles (24 kilometers) before she despaired of finding the Way of Shur, which ran nearby. After her miraculous rescue, she changed her mind about her final destination, and raised her son in the east central area of the Sinai Peninsula.

Abimelech tried another tack at allying himself with Abraham. He brought along Phicol ("Mouth of All" a title meaning commander of troops) and proposed a covenant. The servants of Abimelech were not as enthusiastic as their lord about the presence of such a powerful foreigner. They quarreled with Abraham's servants over water rights. They drove his household up into the edge of the highlands. This is the same area where Hagar and Ishmael had gotten lost. It may have been the same well, but at last Abraham found water for which he wouldn't have to fight. He was probably on the fringe of, or beyond, the perceived land holdings of Abimelech.

Yet, acting in good faith, they agreed to solemnify the covenant in a ceremony which gave Abraham unquestioned control of a well belonging ostensibly to Abimelech. They swore an oath on seven things ("to seven oneself") -- thus, the name of the well, Beersheba ("The Well of Sevens"). The scribe recording this narrative used a contextual reference to "Philistines" to identify Abraham's location. The people later known as Philistines did not arrive in Palestine before 1200 BC, some 800 years after Abraham. This was not deceptive, but a common practice for Hebrew literature.

As far as the biblical record, this is the last time Abraham fails a major test of faith. His final test he passes with flying colors.

Chapter 2.5: Abraham's Final Days

Genesis 22-24 -- There were several factors in Jehovah's final test of Abraham. Child sacrifice was common among the Canaanites. Indeed, Mount Moriah ("Son of God") was later the Temple Mount, yet stood above the awful shrine of Molech, which lay in the Hinnom Valley. Worship of the god Molech ("King") included tossing children into the arms of his statute, which was formed on a large bronze oven. It's no wonder the Israelites later defiled this valley as a garbage dump, known in the New Testament as Gehenna. The peak of Mount Moriah was just above Salem, Melchizedek's city. From his home in Beersheba, Abraham traveled the 50 miles (80 km) there to offer his son as a whole burnt offering. The writer of the New Testament Letter to the Hebrews states that Abraham had by this time enough confidence in Jehovah to believe Isaac could be resurrected (11:17-19).

On the heels of this pivotal event, Abraham received word that his brother's household in Charan was growing. It would be important good news in his determination to carry out his part of the covenant with Jehovah. This was followed in turn by the sadness of Sarah's death. Abraham had been living near the site of Hebron again for quite some years. By this time, the Amorites had been displaced by Hittites ("Sons of Heth"). They would later conquer much of the Fertile Crescent in force during Israel's sojourn in Egypt.

After the days of mourning for Sarah, Abraham came before the local ruling council of the Hittites to buy a burial place. Had he had accepted the offer to use the land without purchasing it, he would have been subject to feudal obligations to the owner. Ephron ("Fawnlike") would have greatly benefited from having a powerful prince like Abraham in his service. This service would have included participation in the worship of Ephron's household deities. Abraham dared not accept those terms. He embarrassed Ephron into selling a piece of land with little agricultural value. The whole transaction follows known Hittite customs, including the use of local currency and the mention of trees. It was thus necessary for Abraham to buy real estate in the land promised to his descendants.

Before his own burial in the Cave of Machpelah ("Fold" as in cloth), Abraham had to ensure Isaac didn't marry locally. Lot's experience illustrated the necessity of this. Abraham forced Eliezer to swear a powerful oath, signified by placing the servant's hand under his master's thigh. Eliezer thus left his entire household hostage during his absence, expecting their slaughter at the hands of Isaac if he proved disloyal in this mission. The servant had no trouble acting according to the customs of his former homeland. Rebekah's generous offer to water his camels was no mean feat. Each camel could drink as much as 30 gallons (113 liters) and there were ten of them. He gave her very fancy jewelry there at the well. To her family he offered very precious and rare gifts, to seal the betrothal and to demonstrate his master's worthiness. Waiting to eat until after relating his business was customary, as well as their asking Rebekah ("Fettering" as by her beauty) her wishes.

At this point, Isaac becomes the focus of the story. Dispatching Eliezer was Abraham's last official act as head of the household before vesting Isaac with that authority. Eliezer returns to a new master. While we see much less of the face to face interaction between Jehovah and Isaac, he is nonetheless inherits the full Covenant promises from his father.

Chapter 2.6: Isaac

Genesis 25-27 -- On the long trip home, it would have been customary for Eliezer to describe to Rebekah the virtues and exploits of her future husband. He would have also brought out a new gift for her now and then, reminding him of another tale, to help build her anticipation and to keep her in high spirits. As they approached the Negev, where Isaac had moved the household, she easily guessed his identity. He had been out in the fields mourning his mother, Sarah. His grief was somewhat assuaged by his bride, whom he placed in the position of authority as mistress of the household. This was signified by giving Rebekah Sarah's accommodations.

The Hebrew scribe inserts a couple of genealogical accounts. The final note in Abraham's life was that he had remarried and had more sons. He also had concubines who had sons. In obedience to Jehovah's plan, these sons were sent away, to become the East Arabian tribes. Ishmael's descendants settled the Sinai Peninsula and northwest Arabia. Then begins afresh the stories of Isaac.

When Isaac was 40 years old, in 2026 BC, his wife gave birth to the twins Esau ("Palpable" due to a rough texture) and Jacob ("Heel Catcher"). They are so named due to the circumstances of their birth. The descriptions portend their personalities. These personalities are established quickly by the story of the birthright. Jacob is smooth in more ways than one. All the more so, since his domestic ways pleased his mother. He was the proverbial Mamma's Boy. As the second-born, he would have inherited one-third of his father's estate. Rough and ready Esau was his father's favorite, in spite of his crude sense of values. He would have inherited two-thirds of Isaac's estate. All of this he traded away for a meal of red-bean stew and bread, simply because he was hungry at the moment. It proved he placed no great value on his birthright as an abstract concept.

Meanwhile, Isaac seems to have learned from some of his father's mistakes. He stayed in the Promised Land in spite of the famine. He simply moved down to the coast, into Abimelech's territory. The Hebrew scribe again uses the term "Philistines" to denote the geographic region. What Isaac failed to learn about was deception. He lied, saying that his wife was his sister, out of fear that the local lords would kill him for her. His father had used this ploy twice, for the same reason. This Abimelech was more cautious than his father had been and spotted Isaac and Rebekah acting more like a married couple than siblings. We have no way of knowing the nature of Abimelech's fears. They were sufficient to give Isaac strong protection. Under this cover, Isaac reaped Jehovah's promised blessing in the form of a bumper crop and a dramatic increase in wealth.

Wealth was power and Isaac's power provoked fear in Abimelech's people. As with Abraham, they drove Isaac out to the edge of the kingdom. It was the same old issue of water rights. Esek ("Push" as in a quarrel) and Sitnah ("Opposition") were names that commemorated their petty insecurity. Rehoboth ("Wide" as in streets) was 20 miles (32 km) south of the upper Gerar Valley, on the edge of the Negev. Here and in Beersheba, Isaac was no longer perceived as a threat to Abimelech's people. In yet another parallel to his father's dealings with these people, Abimelech brings an entourage, including Ahuzzath ("Seized Property") the chief tax collector, to ask for a covenant of non-aggression. Abimelech exaggerated his own goodness, perhaps as a sarcastic reminder of Isaac's deception. They sealed the covenant with a ritual shared meal, the universal symbol of peace. On that same day, Isaac's servants re-excavate Abraham's Well of Sevens (Beersheba) and Isaac gives it the same name.

To further demonstrate that he was not a fit heir of the Covenant, Esau married local Hittite nobility. This was a clear violation of Jehovah's prohibition against mixing with the resident population. In spite of this, Isaac was determined to invest the Covenant blessing in his first-born, something that should have gone with the birthright. The account demonstrates Isaac's foolishness in doting on Esau. Jacob was no hero of righteousness, but he at least had potential. Esau was utterly hopeless, manifesting symptoms of psychopathy. It's hard to judge whether Rebekah was motivated by faith in the prophecy of which son was Jehovah's chosen, or that she simply doted on her own favorite. Perhaps it was both. She clearly knew how to play on her husband's carnal lust for barbecued venison and his failing senses. She also knew how to keep an eye on Esau, foiling his murderous plans for Jacob. By reminding Isaac of their mutual disgust over Esau's choice of brides, she prompts him to perform his duty to send the new Heir of the Covenant back to her homeland to marry. Furthermore, the only one permitted by custom to execute Jacob for his deception in the matter of the blessing was Isaac himself. Semitic morality doesn't permit farming out one's corrective authority, but requires the elder to get off the fence and act one way or the other. Since Isaac was unwilling to correct, he was obligated to protect his heir by sending him to safety.

It would be unfair to say Isaac was not a good and righteous man. His behavior was more obedient than that of his father, Abraham. Yet, he was but a man and still bore the mark of the Fall. Still, human failings cannot frustrate the will of God. The long thread of redemption continues.

Chapter 2.7: Jacob

Genesis 28-30 -- We are not told what happens to Jacob's material inheritance while he is gone. He took very little with him. Yet, it would be unthinkable for Isaac to send his heir off with only a knapsack. It is therefore reasonable to assume that he had at least a couple of beasts of burden and perhaps a servant or two. We do know that Jacob did not carry the customary bridal gifts, such as Eliezer exchanged for Rebekah. That would have taken too long to gather. Jacob was hastily fleeing a confrontation for which he was ill-equipped. What he needed was the journey itself, a long route to manhood.

Traveling lightly, Jacob would have made the fifty miles (80 km) or so to the city of Luz in two or three days. His vision there was the beginning of a long, hard struggle to become Jehovah's man. His shallow commitment at the time was provisionally accepted. Jehovah alone can judge the sincerity of a man's commitment and what He accepts from him. To mark the event, Jacob set up a stone pillar. This would be any naturally occurring rock that so much as vaguely suggested a pillar. The commemorative pillar would not have been large, but it would have been recognized by any passer-by for what it was. Such stones are seldom left standing by natural forces; the seasoned olive oil coating on it was used in numerous religious rituals.

We aren't given the time frame for his arriving in what is today Northern Syria. Jacob's queries of the shepherds would have been typical of that day. Flocks were normally gathered at dusk for protective purposes, so gathering them at midday puzzled Jacob. The well was probably the only source of water in that area. From the context, it seems to have been a matter of the stone cover's size and weight that necessitated the gathering of several flocks in order to water them. Shepherds worked virtually alone, so it would take several people to move a large protective cover. Jacob felt joy and relief at finding so quickly a member of his kin, as well as being thrilled with her beauty. Together, these feelings provoked him to remove the stone cover over the well and bring up enough water for the flock of sheep Rachel was tending. Thus, we have an odd reversal of Eliezer's experience in finding Rebekah.

Jacob's uncle Laban welcomed him with open arms, and then promptly began to prove a far greater schemer than Jacob ever dreamed of being. Laban's claim of custom dictating the marriage of the elder daughter is not supported by archaeological evidence. We have a wealth of knowledge on the marriage customs of that place and time, so we can take it as a lie. This was simply a ruse by Laban to dispose of an unattractive daughter, for whom there was little hope of finding local suitors. After seeing what a circus this family became, we little wonder that the Law of Moses prohibited a man marrying sisters while both lived. The mention of mandrakes reflects the silliness of the sisters jockeying for position. Mandrakes were a yellow plum-like wild fruit, commonly referred to as "love apples," ripening in May when wheat was ready to harvest. It was believed they had magical powers to improve fertility. Oddly enough, it was Leah who got pregnant, after she traded them away. Jehovah was not impressed with the mandrakes.

Laban also practiced magic: divination, through his household gods. Yet it took no revelation from demons for him to know that he prospered at the hands of Jacob. As Laban's victim, Jacob was learning to trust Jehovah to keep the covenant they made at Bethel, now fourteen years past. He boldly offered to accept the smallest share of the herds by coloring. Sheep were normally all white and goats were black. Exceptions were rare. Such a choice guaranteed Laban could not cheat Jacob of his wages. At least, so Jacob thought. Laban immediately directed his sons to drive all such animals in a herd roughly fifty miles (80 km) away. This would minimize their presence in the gene-pool. Acting on a revelation from Jehovah, which came in a dream, Jacob used prenatal influence on the healthier sheep and goats, a practice that is known today to be somewhat effective; all the more so with Jehovah's divine support of moral justice.

Few men of the Covenant lineage were as morally and ethically challenged as the scheming Jacob. Yet we see the miraculous power of God at work in the man's heart, taming the selfish impulses. The change is nothing less than dramatic. Notice the image of manhood isn't raw power or skill, but moral justice that gives him the courage and authority to stand tall.

Jacob Becomes Israel

Genesis 31-36 -- After seven years of this genetic manipulation of Laban's herds, Jacob was quite wealthy. Things were tense between his and his uncle's households. Jehovah came in a dream to tell Jacob it was time to go home. Foregoing the usual formalities to avoid further efforts by Laban to detain him, Jacob simply fled Paddan-aram ("High Plains"). His wives went willingly, in part because Laban neglected to give them the customary bridal share of his wealth. Rachel was not content to simply leave; she took her father's household idols (teraphim). Possession of these would mark Jacob as the legal heir to Laban's household. It was no doubt this that was Laban's real concern in pursuing Jacob.

Hastily departing the sheep-shearing festival with his armed men, Laban caught up with Jacob in the hills of Gilead, some 300 miles (480 km) away. His violent intent blunted by a warning from Jehovah, Laban was left with bluster and threats. Rachel's wicker camel saddle was a convenient hiding place from his search, not to mention quite comfortable for just sitting. She knew Laban would be loath to touch a woman in menses, or anything on which she was sitting. Relieved that Laban found nothing, Jacob was in a position to deliver his own sharp rebuke. With no leverage, Laban settled for a covenant that would prevent Jacob avenging his mistreatment. It was sealed with a ritual peace meal and a monument to represent Jehovah as the sentry blocking the path of retribution. Laban departed, his schemes finally defeated.

Meeting Esau was the final test of Jacob's moral character. While he was not above deceiving Esau about his intentions, Jacob was able to trust Jehovah for the outcome. His savvy preparations for the worst shows he was resigned to a bad ending, trying to reduce his losses to a minimum. The theophany wrestling match indicates how far Jacob had come since his last dealings with his brother. It was common for lords to give new names to their servants, usually to indicate recognition of some newly earned respect, or to mark a promotion. Jacob's new name, Israel ("Prevails with God"), indicated a complete change in character, as well. The new names Israel gave to the places along the way, to mark pivotal events, traced his path down the Jabbok River. Mahanaim ("Two Camps") is half-way up the Jabbok Valley, Peniel or Penuel ("Face of God") farther down and Succoth ("Tents") at the mouth, where the river flowed into the Jordan. His brother Esau had made his home in the old Hurrian Kingdom southeast of the Dead Sea. Because of his nickname, Edom, the region is known by that name, as well as by the name Mount Seir, or simply Seir. The area was also known for predominant red sandstone. In the New Testament, the descendants of Esau were known by their Roman name, Idumaeans, derived from Edom.

Israel's sons seemed to have learned some of his previously deceptive ways. Israel wisely made peace with the local powers by purchasing land Jehovah had promised that his descendants would inherit. Two of his sons arrogantly butchered the whole male population and plundered the city as well. It is noteworthy that this crime forfeited their standing as second and third in line to inherit their father's throne as grand sheikh. Indeed, their actions threatened to provoke the demise of their entire household. At Jehovah's prompting, Israel moved his small kingdom south to Bethel. Eventually, he moved farther south to Ephrath, later known as Bethlehem. On the way, he lost Rachel in childbirth. With the birth of this last of his twelve sons, the Hebrew scribe inserts a list of those sons in birth-order. Mentioned in passing is Reuben's trespass on his father's harem, forfeiting his rights as first-born. This shift of the birthright was not formally announced until Israel was on his death bed. The passing of Isaac is noted. The records of Esau's descendants and those of the Hurrians (Horites) with whom he lived, follow that.

No effort is made to hide the sinful acts of the main characters. Indeed, much of the story centers on showing how much they were changed by living under the law portion of Abraham's Covenant. More than just the maturity of becoming a man, or the wisdom of aging, this is the Omniscient hand of God at work in forming the character of each man to pass on the obligations of the covenant. Again, fallen man cannot frustrate the plans of God.

Chapter 2.8: Joseph

Genesis 37-50 -- While there is no condemnation for having a clear favorite among his sons, we see that Israel nonetheless suffers much for it. The expensive, ankle-length robe appears to have been a symbol of Israel's intention of making Joseph his prime heir. Somewhere between a native lack of character and Israel's failure to teach them better, his older sons continued to display immoral behavior. In the face of the constant provocation from Joseph, the Dreamer, they first conspired to murder him. Scarcely to their credit, they sold him into slavery instead. Only Reuben acted responsibly, in planning to secretly rescue his little brother. Judah's inspiration to sell him to their relatives, the Ishmaelites and Midianites, was hardly for the money. It was a convenient and bloodless way to get rid of him. The caravan route was within hailing distance. Rather than starvation at the bottom of a dry water storage pit, Israel's favorite son faced a life of slavery. Slavery itself was not the issue, as it served the same function as modern prison confinement; it was wholly unjustified in this case. As the eldest, Reuben was still responsible for his siblings' welfare, but he took the coward's way out. The cover story was sufficient to deceive the old deceiver, their father.

The inserted tale of Judah's misadventures serves as a further contrast to Joseph's moral uprightness. The custom of a surviving sibling impregnating his deceased brother's wife was to preserve the dead brother's share of the estate. Onan's refusal was likely based on greed over Er's assets. Onan stood to gain in a redistribution of Er's double portion if he failed to produce sons in his brother's name. He may also have resented being saddled with a wife not his own choosing. He would have had to provide for her and her children along with his own. Onan joined his elder brother in tasting Jehovah's displeasure. Sons of their father, Judah was little better. He neglected his promise and was himself deceived. It was the custom for a Canaanite temple prostitute to hide her face, to preserve the notion that her customers were focused on worshiping Astarte, whom she served. A man of wealth and power like Judah would have had an official seal-- usually a small cylinder-shaped object, carved so that rolling it in soft clay left a unique mark representing the signature of its owner. It would have hung on a cord of better material, perhaps a family color, to be worn around the neck. Some translations of the Bible choose alternative terms more fitting to a later period in history: signet ring and bracelet. The staff was a shepherd's crook, the ubiquitous symbol of power in that part of the world, bearing unique markings to identify the owner. Indeed, the word for staff also means one's tribe or clan.

By the time Joseph arrived in Egypt, around 1800 BC, the native pharaohs would have delegated important royal functions to the nobility. This was a political necessity, since it was they who maintained his position. His presumed divinity was an imperfect protection. Potiphar is an Egyptian title that seems to mean "Chief Slaughterer," perhaps in charge of providing meat for Pharaoh's sacred table. Joseph was so upright in his service that he was quickly promoted to chief steward, or manager, of Potiphar's entire household, including the details of his service to Pharaoh.

Egyptian records of that period, the XII Dynasty, support the precedent of foreigners in high positions. Even as a prisoner, falsely accused, Joseph remained true to Jehovah's standards, quite the opposite of his brothers. He served faithfully as the prison trustee. As a result, Jehovah prospered everything he touched and he was talented in dream analysis. One of Pharaoh's customs was, on the anniversary of his ascension to the throne (his "divine birthday"), to selectively pardon some of his failed servants. In belatedly keeping his promise, two years after his release from prison, the Chief Butler recommended Joseph to interpret Pharaoh's perplexing dreams. The royal magicians and priests would have searched an extensive collection of dream analysis texts, dating back more than a millennium. This time they searched in vain. When it was Joseph's turn, the court attendants made some hurried changes in Joseph's appearance. It was customary for anyone entering Pharaoh's divine presence to have his head shaved and to be dressed in white linen. Joseph's analysis of the dreams was too obviously correct, his advice too wise, for him to serve anywhere below Viceroy of Egypt.

With his promotion, Joseph received the native name Zaphenath-paa'neah, implying that he was the voice of God. No doubt Pharaoh associated Joseph's Jehovah with On, the god of the sun, at that time the chief deity of the Nile Valley. Thirteen years after arriving as a slave, Joseph now ruled Egypt as Pharaoh's prime minister. He was in a perfect position to save his family back in Canaan from the impending famine. While famines in this part of the world were not rare, ones so protracted and widespread were. By this time, the population of Egypt was sufficient to make extended droughts a serious problem, despite the proximity of the Nile River. Even the Nile could be reduced to a mere trickle by comparison to its normal flow. Foreigners from nearby lands seeking to buy grain would only increase the pressure on resources. An additional duty of Joseph's was Granary Steward. It was his duty to collect and rotate the annual surplus from the fat years, so that there would be plenty in the lean years. He was also responsible for balancing the need to feed Egyptians first against the need to boost Pharaoh's power and prestige by trading the excess grain to foreigners.

Pharaoh's court ruled on the basis of presumed divinity, with everything in his service bearing pagan religious overtones. With Joseph appearing so totally Egyptian, apparently with Jehovah's permission to engage in some of the pagan practices, his brothers never recognized him. An Egyptian noble would have maintained a ritual purity by putting as much distance as possible between himself and these unholy foreign visitors. Even when he knew the language they used, he would engage an interpreter rather than speak directly to them. The Hebrew scribe makes mention of this policy in regard to the shared meal. Once Joseph had ascertained their repentance for past wrongs, he was able to reveal himself to them.

The entire account of Joseph is one of the better literary pieces in the Pentateuch. The details match known customs of the XII Dynasty and much of the story is structured according to the same customs. Pharaoh's grant of Goshen was easy for him; though rich pasture lands, it was away from the irrigation canals and unfit for the sacred Nile-centered agriculture of the Egyptians. It was also quite distant from his capital in Thebes, which sat far to the south of the Nile Delta. Thus, he gained a strong ally as a buffer on the northeast, his weakest border. At the same time, it cost him almost nothing. Under Joseph's administration, Pharaoh gained full feudal ownership of all but the priestly estates. The instability, the rather fragile position of Pharaoh, witnessed by Abraham much earlier on his visit to Egypt was resolved in Pharaoh's favor. We are allowed to see that the elder brothers of Joseph finally rise to Jehovah's standards. At the same time, Israel's prophetic utterances over them serve to reveal the unmitigated character flaws of some. He promotes Joseph's sons as his own, giving them an equal share in the birthright. Judah is formally given the status of first-born. Yet his brothers still recognized Joseph's very real power over them. They were certainly safe during their father's lifetime. After Israel's funeral, they threw themselves on Joseph's mercy and learned that he had never intended them harm. The moral justice that powered his rise to power also protected them.

Transition to Exodus

Recent archaeological digs in Egypt have uncovered what we believed was Joseph's retirement villa, in the midst of a large settlement in Goshen. Graves nearby are purely Asiatic (as opposed to Egyptian), including one for an Asiatic nobleman. On the rubble of this villa was built the Hyksos palace. The Hyksos (Egyptian for "Foreign Rulers") arrived shortly after 1700 BC from Syria and developed a strong presence in the East Delta region. From this power base, they eventually conquered Egypt and took the place of the native ruling elite. Having adopted the bulk of Egyptian culture, they were referred to as "Egyptian" in contemporary records.

The Hyksos altered a few cultural details in Egypt. For example, they instituted the practice of using the Pharaoh's personal name in written records, but not those of vanquished enemies. They also introduced the horse-drawn chariots and bronze weapons, which enabled their conquest in the first place. Thus, pretending to be true Egyptians, chosen by the Nile gods to rule, they clearly distinguished themselves from the native regime of their predecessors. It has proven exceptionally difficult for historians to determine if it was they or a later regime that enslaved the Hebrew people. No one of several suppositions adequately answers all the difficulties. 1 Kings 6:1 places the Exodus 480 years prior to Solomon's 4th year of reign, known to be around 967 BC. This puts the Exodus around 1447 BC. Based on this internal evidence from Scripture, we will assume here that the pharaoh of enslavement was Hyksos, but that the enslavement was continued after they were expelled.

As a further note, much of what we know in the Ancient Near East is dated from the basis of Egyptian history. It is quite possible the currently accepted system of dating for Egypt is a house of cards, ready to collapse with the next archaeological discovery. Already, there have been credible scholars challenging the system. While we use the accepted timeline for these lessons, nothing important here requires that system to be accurate.

Ed Hurst
12 January 2004, revised 02 February 2016

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