The contents of the book of Genesis were committed to writing long after the narrated events occurred, and efforts to identify ancient sources are mere conjectures. At the same time, oral transmission from generation to generation about certain events may well have been involved, accounting for the repetition of identical wording. Being a very ancient book, Genesis should be read as such and not against the backdrop of modern concepts. One must avoid assigning meanings to words, phrases, and the narratives themselves that would have been foreign to persons who first read Genesis or heard the book read to them.
It is also possible to draw wrong conclusions when the Genesis narratives are considered as a reworking of myths that anciently existed among Near Eastern and Mediterranean peoples. There is, for example, a marked difference between the Babylonian Enuma Elish creation myth and the account in Genesis chapter 1. At the very start of the Genesis account the focus is on the creative activity of one true God, and his “word” is portrayed as bringing everything into existence. The Babylonian myth, however, depicts the created world as the product of the violent, murderous conflict of gods and goddesses.
When reading Genesis, one must keep in mind that the book was originally committed to writing for Israelites who believed in one true God. Therefore, the reader must not forget that Genesis needs to be understood with this fact in mind. Individuals who reject belief in the one true God will not derive lasting benefit from what was recorded many centuries ago. Instead, they will most likely join the chorus of those who criticize and ridicule the ancient book, never giving thought to the reality that it was never meant for them. Genesis is not their book. It is foreign to them. Regrettably, with some of their interpretations, many who ardently defend Genesis as part of the “inspired Word of God,” have contributed to increasing and intensifying the ridicule of unbelievers.
According to verses 8 and 9 of chapter 1, the Hebrew words for “heavens” (the dual form shamáyim) and “earth” (’érets) designate what appears to a human observer as a celestial dome and a land area (literally, the “dry”). Therefore, it appears preferable to consider verse 1 as introducing the coming into existence of the apparent celestial dome and the dry land that rises above the sea. Verse 1 does not need to be understood as referring to the creation of the universe, with its billions of galaxies as by a “big bang” that God originated. The focus in Genesis is on the progressive steps that came about through the expression of God’s will to shape a watery void without form and shrouded in darkness (verse 2) into a place where plant, animal, and human life could exist. A number of modern translations interpretively render verse 1 to be explicit as an introduction to the words that follow. “In the beginning, when God created the heavens and the earth —” (NAB) “When God began to create heaven and earth —” (Tanakh [JPS, 1985 edition])
In Genesis 1:5-2:4, the Hebrew word yohm appears with four different meanings — the period of daylight (1:5, 14, 16, 18), the six creative days followed by the day of rest (1:5, 8, 13, 19, 23, 31; 2:2, 3), the day consisting of a period of daylight and of night as people would reckon it on the basis of the appearance of the sun and the moon (1:14), and the entire period of the seven creative days (2:4) The various meanings for the Hebrew word yohm, as indicated by the context, provide good reason for avoiding arguments about the length of each of the six creative days.
Verse 2 mentions the activity of the rúach. The Hebrew word rúach can either mean “spirit” or “wind.” This explains why translations differ in their renderings (“a mighty wind sweeping over the waters” [NAB], “a wind from God sweeping over the water” [Tanakh (JPS, 1985 edition)], “the spirit of God hovered over the surface of the water” [REB]). The attribution of creation to what God says (not to his spirit) suggests that “wind” here may be the preferable meaning of rúach. Targum Jonathan on Genesis (thought to date probably from the second century CE), however, refers to the “spirit of mercy from before YY [Yeya (YHWH)].”
In the Hebrew language, the state of the earth at the beginning is described as tohú va-vohú, and the Septuagint renders this expression as “unseen and unformed.” No land and no seas teeming with life existed at that time. What would become land and seas was a “deep,” an “abyss” (LXX), a watery void enshrouded in the blackness of gloom. “Day one” witnessed the coming into existence of “light” or the removal of the darkness. Just how this state of darkness ended through the “light” is not revealed nor is the manner in which developments occurred explained in relation to other days. With the total darkness having vanished, “day one” was marked by a period of daylight (“light”) and a period of darkness (“night”). Like the 24-hour day that began for the Israelites at sundown, “day one” (as also the other “days” that followed) began in the evening. (1:2-5)
God’s word or the expression of his purpose on “day two” is represented as causing a division between the “waters,” with “waters” coming to be above the “expanse” or the celestial dome (“heaven” or the “sky”) and beneath it. Whereas God is portrayed as acknowledging as good the creative work accomplished on days one, three, four, five, and six, the extant Hebrew text does not include “good” for “day two.” This may be because the work involving the expanse above the “waters” was not completed until “day four.” The Septuagint, however, does contain the phrase, “and God saw that [it was] good.” (1:6-8) In the case of the ancient Israelites, they apparently would have understood “waters” as being above the expanse because rain descended from the sky or the celestial dome that towered above them.
In expression of God’s will on “day three,” the dry region of land (literally, the “dry”) appeared as an area for greenery and trees to flourish. God is represented as calling the dry region “earth” or “land,” and as designating the “waters” that had been collected into one place as “seas.” Once land came into being, it began to produce a great variety of plants and trees. (1:9-13)
Seemingly, from the standpoint of a human observer, “day four” was marked by the appearance of two “lights” and also of “stars” in the sky or on the celestial dome. The “greater light” (the sun) served to provide daylight, and the “lesser light” (the moon) provided illumination during the night. At a time when the people of other nations worshiped the sun and moon as deities, the Genesis account proved to be truly revelatory. The sun and moon were not deities, just “lights” that functioned as “signs” or as means for establishing seasons, days, and years. They were mere creations that came into existence through the expression of the purpose of the one true God. (1:14-19)
There being an ample provision of food in the form of plants and fruit growing on the land and apparently also sufficient means of nourishment in the seas to support marine life, the time had come, on “day five” for the coming into existence of both marine and flying creatures. This included huge ones in the seas. With God’s blessing, the great variety of creatures (literally, “living souls”) could reproduce their own kind. (1:20-23)
On “day six,” quadrupeds, reptiles and other creeping things began to live on the land. All of these creatures had the capacity to reproduce their own kind. (1:24, 25) Also, on “day six,” God is quoted as saying, “Let us make man in our image after our likeness.” According to Targum Jonathan (considered to date probably from the second century CE), God spoke to the “angels who ministered before him” and says that they had been “created in the second day of the creation of the world.” Angels are mentioned in the book of Genesis, and so it is understandable that the people of ancient Israel would have concluded that God spoke to them. The view expressed in the Targum about the creation of the angels on the second day probably was based on associating the realm of the angels as being above the expanse or celestial dome that came into existence on “day two.” For “man” to be in the “image” of God would not mean that humans were made to look like God but that they would be in possession of noble qualities such as love and wisdom, of the capacity for thought and creativity, and of an appreciation for order and beauty. (1:26)
God is represented as giving man “dominion” over all marine and terrestrial life forms. This was not a grant to destroy or to exploit living creatures, but a stewardship or a responsibility toward them, for they were God’s creation and did not belong to man. Throughout the centuries, humans have failed greatly in the exercise of proper dominion, having made themselves responsible for the senseless extinction and abuse of many living creatures. (1:26)
According to Targum Jonathan, God created man “with 248 members, with 365 nerves,” overlaying them with “skin” and filling it “with flesh and blood.”
After creating “man” in his image, creating male and female, God blessed them. They were to have offspring, “subdue” or cultivate the land, and exercise dominion over all living creatures. Plants and trees would provide them and also animals with abundant food. Targum Jonathan indicates that trees that did not bear fruit suitable for food were to be used “for building” and as material “for burning.” Everything that had come into existence on “day six” was “very good.” (1:27-31)
After six creative days, all the works pertaining to the land, sea, and the celestial dome were complete. Everything is represented as having come into existence on the basis of what God said. Nothing is revealed about any work or activity on God’s part nor is there any reference to any time element in conjunction with the creation of what was required to transform a watery void into land and seas where plant and animal life began to flourish in great abundance and variety. For example, nothing is said about any work needed or time required for the land to come into existence and afterward for a variety of plants and trees to appear on the land. Day seven, however, is identified as God’s day of rest “from all his work that he had done” and as a day he blessed and set apart as sacred. (2:1-3)
There is a reason for the focus on God’s spoken word rather than on his activity. Once his word or purpose is expressed, that purpose is certain to be realized. God’s word, therefore, brought into the realm of reality everything that was represented as having been spoken by him. The processes or specific times involved in bringing the revealed purposes into the realm of actuality are not included in the biblical narratives. The emphasis on God’s word can help the one who reads the the biblical narratives or hears them read to recognize that what God says is trustworthy and that all of his promises are certain to be fulfilled.
Work or activity was involved in bringing into being everything that God had purposed. His resting on “day seven,” however, does not mean that he needed time for recuperation after everything was finished. The fact that he is represented as seeing the creative works as good indicated that his purpose had been fully accomplished, with no need for any additional creative activity. God could rest from the standpoint of looking upon all creation with delight and satisfaction as work that had been finished. (2:3)
For the people of Israel, the divine precedent of six days of work followed by a day of rest provided them with a lofty spiritual reason for faithfully observing the seventh day as a day of rest. Referring to the “rest” that followed the six creative days, the first-century Jewish historian Josephus wrote, “In just six days the world and all that is therein was made; and the seventh day was a rest, and a release from the labor of such operations — whence it is that we celebrate a rest from our labors on that day, and call it Sabbath, which word denotes rest in the Hebrew tongue.” (Antiquities, I, i, 1; compare Exodus 20:8-11.)
Verse 4 of chapter 2 appears to be the introduction for the creation narrative that focuses specifically on the beginning of the human race. “These [are] the generations [or beginnings] of the heavens [the sky or celestial dome] and the earth [or land] in their being created in the day YHWH God made [the] earth [or land] and the heavens [the sky or celestial dome].” This is the first occurrence of the divine name (YHWH). Based on Exodus 3:14, the four Hebrew consonants, YHWH, making up this name evidently incorporate the verb “to be” (Compare the Septuagint reading, egó eimi ho ón [I am the one who is], and the words of Revelation 1:4, ho ón kaí ho en kaí ho erchómenos [the one who is and who was and who is coming]). In view of the Septuagint reading of Exodus 3:14 and the words of Revelation 1:4, the name apparently identifies the Supreme Sovereign as the One who is and continues to be and as the ultimate Source of everything that exists and that will come to be in fulfillment of his word and purpose. The name stands as an absolute guarantee that the Supreme Sovereign would never deviate from what he has declared or revealed he would prove himself to be. He and his word, therefore, are deserving of the utmost confidence. Whereas the Greek eimi (am) is in the present tense, the Hebrew expression ’ehyéh is in the imperfect state. Hence, the words of Exodus 3:14, ’ehyéh ’ashér ’ehyéh, may be rendered “I will be who I will be.” This suggests that the Almighty would prove to be exactly who he has revealed himself to be.
The creation narrative starts with a description of desolate, uncultivated land devoid of plant, animal, and human life. Conditions for the sprouting of greenery did not exist. The stated reason for this was that “YHWH God had not caused it to rain upon the earth” or land. There also was no man to cultivate the ground. The watering of the surface of the ground is attributed to a “mist” that rose from the land. According to the Septuagint, the source for the watering was a “fountain.” Targum Jonathan (considered to date probably from the second century CE) provides a different explanation. It says that a “cloud of glory descended from the throne of glory, and was filled with waters from the ocean, and afterward went up from the earth,” causing rain to come down and to water the entire surface of the ground. (2:5, 6)
YHWH God is represented as forming man from the dust of the ground or from the elements that are a part of the soil and breathing into his “nostrils the breath of life.” By having the animating principle of life imparted, the lifeless body became a “living soul” or a living being. (2:7) Targum Jonathan adds that God created the first man “red, black, and white.” The Jewish historian Josephus of the first century CE wrote regarding the man, “This man was called Adam, which in the Hebrew tongue signifies one that is red, because he was formed out of red earth, compounded together; for of that kind is virgin and true earth” or soil. (Antiquities, I, i, 2)
As a home for the man (Adam), YHWH God is represented as planting a garden (a paradise [LXX]) in the eastern part of the region of Eden. (2:8) One long-held conjecture is that Eden was located in the mountainous area of eastern Turkey just south of Lake Van.
The garden featured delightful fruit-bearing trees. There were also two special trees in the garden — the “tree of life” and the “tree of the knowledge of good and evil.” Targum Jonathan greatly exaggerates the height of the “tree of life” (a “journey of five hundred years”). A river, with its source in Eden, watered the garden. This river divided and formed four rivers — the Pishon (Ganges [Josephus]), Gihon (Nile [Josephus], flowing around Cush (Ethiopia [LXX]; through Egypt [Josephus]), Hiddekel (Tigris [LXX]), flowing east of Asshur (Assyria), and Perath (Euphrates [LXX]). (Antiquities, I, i, 3) The Pishon is associated with the “land of Havilah,” a region where quality gold, bdellium (a resinous gum [carbuncle (LXX)), and onyx stone (green stone, possibly emerald [LXX]) were found. Havilah, however, cannot be linked to any known region. (2:9-14)
After YHWH God had created the man, he placed him in the “garden of Eden” to cultivate it and to keep, guard, or preserve it. (2:15) He also commanded him not to eat of the “tree of the knowledge of good and evil,” warning him that he would die that day if he were to eat its fruit. As for all the other trees in the garden, their fruit was available to the man for food. (2:16, 17) The command not to eat of the one tree implied no moral defect in the man, for eating was essential for sustaining life and only God’s command respecting the tree made its fruit unacceptable for food. This tree is not identified. Therefore, the view that it was an apple tree is baseless. For the man to eat fruit from the tree would bring upon him the immediate judgment of death, but the actual death would not necessarily follow on that 24-hour day.
YHWH God is represented as declaring that it was not good for the man to be alone (to “be sleeping alone” [Targum Jonathan]) Therefore, he determined to make a suitable “helper” for him or a companion like him, a genuine support. Before the man received this “helper,” he was given the opportunity to name animals and birds that YHWH God had formed from the soil or the elements of the ground. Among all these creatures, the man did not see any of them as a suitable “helper” for him. The man’s naming the creatures implied his superiority over them. Only humans possess the capacity to name creatures, and this has continued to the present time. (2:19, 20)
YHWH God is portrayed as causing the man to fall into a deep sleep, removing from him one rib and then closing up the flesh over the place from which the rib had been taken. Thereafter he formed the rib into a woman and brought her to the man. (2:21, 22) Targum Jonathan says that the “thirteenth rib of the right side” was removed. This view probably is based on the reality that both men and women have the same number of ribs — 24. It may be noteworthy, however, that a partially removed rib can regenerate if the periosteum (the membrane of connective tissue around the bone) remains intact. Moreover, the bone does contain the potential for the formation of another human.
Rabbi Sa’adiah ben Yosef Gaon (882/892 – 942 CE) explained that the creation of the woman from the rib of the man was done with wisdom. It would motivate the man to treat her mercifully as she was one of his body parts, and she would regard him as the source of her life. He would look after her as a man would guard a piece of himself, and she would follow him in the manner a limb would follow the body. Abarbanel (a fifteenth-century Portuguese Jewish Bible commentator) concluded that the woman was not created from the man’s foot so that he would not consider her to be a lowly maidservant, nor was she created from his head so that she would lord over him. Instead, she was created from his side so that she would be equal to him.
The man was delighted when he saw the woman and is quoted as expressing himself in poetic language. “At last this one [is] bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh. This one will be called woman, for from man this one was taken.” (2:23)
The union that would result from a man with his wife would become closer than that which had existed with his parents. A man would leave his father and his mother, attaching himself to his wife and forming a partnership as “one flesh,” comparable to that of just one person or a union of the closest kinship possible. (2:24) Both the man and the woman remained naked in their created state, but they were not ashamed. (2:25)
Among all the creatures of the “field” that YHWH God made, the serpent is described as being more clever or crafty (‘arúm). It may be that the reason for this description was the deceit with which the serpent became associated, for all creation was good and so no part of it could fittingly be identified as clever, crafty, or deceitful. Targum Jonathan (considered to date probably from the second century CE) refers to the serpent as being wiser respecting evil. The serpent is portrayed as asking the woman, “Did God indeed say that you must not eat from any tree of the garden?” This question implied that God was depriving her of partaking of the fruit from all the trees and that it was unfair for him to prohibit her from enjoying even a little of the abundance of available fruit. She responded correctly to the cleverly worded question. “Of the fruit from any tree of the garden, we may eat. But from the fruit of the tree that is in the middle of the garden, God said, You must not eat from it and you must not touch it, lest you die.” Although the woman was fully aware of God’s command regarding the “tree of the knowledge of good and evil,” the question led to her focusing her attention on that very tree and preparing her for an answer respecting the reason for the prohibition regarding it. The answer was a lie that slandered God who had provided everything needful for her enjoyment and that of her husband. “You will certainly not die (literally, “dying, you will not die”), for God knows that, in the day of your eating of it, your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God in knowing good and evil.” According to Targum Jonathan, she was told, “You will be as the great angels, who are wise to know between good and evil.” Completely deceived by the words coming from the serpent, the woman saw the tree in a different light, not as something to be avoided. It was good for food, pleasant to behold, a tree to be desired and having the capacity to make one wise. She then ate the fruit. Later, when her husband was with her, she gave him fruit, and he also ate it. (3:1-6)
Prior to partaking of the fruit, the woman and her husband had no knowledge of evil on the basis of personal experience. She and her husband had conducted themselves in a good way, and the thought of doing evil by transgressing the command they had been given apparently did not even occur to them. At the time she chose to eat the fruit, however, the woman determined that God’s command was not good. In this manner, she elevated herself to be like God in establishing what was good and what was evil for her personally. The result was not what she expected. Her eyes and those of her husband were opened, and they experienced the disturbing effect from having chosen to do evil. They became uncomfortable in the presence of one another because their conscience condemned them. Perceiving their naked or exposed state, they covered their private parts with fig leaves. Targum Jonathan says that “they knew they were naked, divested of the purple robe in which they had been created.” (3:7)
The ancient view among the Jews regarding this narrative appears to have been that the serpent possessed the capacity to speak and to express thoughts. First-century Jewish historian Josephus wrote: “All the living creatures had one language.” At that time, the serpent lived together with Adam and his wife. At seeing them living happily and in obedience to the commands of God, the serpent manifested an envious disposition. Imagining that, if they were to disobey the commands, they would fall into calamities, the serpent “persuaded the woman, out of a malicious intention, to taste of the tree of knowledge.” The serpent told the woman “that in that tree was the knowledge of good and evil, which knowledge,” when obtained, would lead to a happy life — a “life not inferior to that of a god.” By this means, the serpent “overcame the woman, and persuaded her to despise the command of God. Now when she had tasted of that tree, and was pleased with its fruit, she persuaded Adam to make use of it also. Upon this, they perceived they were naked to one another.” Being ashamed thus to be seen abroad, they invented coverings for themselves. The tree had “sharpened their understanding, and they covered themselves with fig leaves.” Tying these leaves together, “out of modesty, they thought they were happier” than they had been before, as they had discovered what they lacked. (Antiquities, I, i, 4)
Early Christians understood the serpent to have been more than a talking snake. They considered the serpent to have been the instrument the Devil used to deceive the woman. In John 8:44, Jesus Christ is quoted as identifying the Devil as a murderer, a liar, and the “father” or originator of lies, and Revelation 12:9 refers to the one called “Devil and Satan” as the “ancient [or original] serpent.”
Just like the woman long ago, many people since then have been deceived by the same lie, imagining that their best interests are served when they set their own ever-changing norms or standards respecting what is good and what is bad. They prefer to make themselves like God, or the highest authority, with no accountability for rejecting what is set forth as the “word of God” in the “holy scriptures” that have been preserved throughout the centuries. Often those who disregard the “word of God” ridicule what is set forth in Genesis, never recognizing themselves as having adopted a course like that of the woman.
During the windy part of the day (literally, the “wind of the day) or the “late afternoon” (deilinós [LXX]), the man and his wife heard the “sound of YHWH God walking in the garden.” It appears that the one whom the man and his wife heard walking was the direct representative of YHWH or the “angel of YHWH,” the one who many centuries later spoke to Abraham and who is referred to as YHWH and as one of three “men” or angels whom Abraham met. (Compare Genesis 18:1, 2, 16, 17, 22, 33; 19:1.) In view of their guilt-ridden conscience, the man and his wife went into hiding “from the face [or the presence] of YHWH God among the trees of the garden.” (3:8)
YHWH God called out to the man with the question, “Where are you?” The man admitted that he had heard his sound (apparently of his walking) in the garden and had hidden himself, being afraid on account of his nakedness. Targum Jonathan represents God as saying, “Is not all the world that I have made manifest before me — the darkness as the light? How did you think in your heart to hide from before me? Do I not see the place where you are concealed? Where are the commandments that I commanded you?” The Jewish historian Josephus added that the man had previously been pleased to respond to God and to converse with him whenever he came into the garden. He then quoted God as saying, “I had before determined about you both, how you might lead a happy life, without any affliction, and care, and vexation of soul; and that all things which might contribute to your enjoyment and pleasure should grow up by my providence, of their own accord, without your own labor and pains-taking; which state of labor and pains-taking would soon bring on old age, and death would not be at any remote distance.” (Antiquities, I, i, 4) Questioned as to who had told him that he was naked and whether he had eaten from the prohibited tree, the man, just like many people today, failed to acknowledge personal responsibility for his sin. He framed his answer in a manner that implicated God in his transgression and placed the blame for his sin on his wife. “The woman you gave [to be] with me, she gave me [fruit] from the tree, and I ate.” Faced with the question as to what she had done, the woman also did not take full responsibility for her deed but said that the serpent had deceived her. (3:9-13)
YHWH God first pronounced judgment on the serpent. Among all the animals, the serpent would be cursed, move on its belly, and eat dust “all the days of [its] life.” There would be enmity between the serpent and the woman, between the serpent’s seed or offspring and the woman’s seed or offspring. The offspring of the woman would bruise the serpent in the head, and the serpent would bruise the woman’s offspring in the heel. Targum Jonathan represents this to mean that the serpent’s means of locomotion changed and that it became a venomous creature. “Upon your belly you will go, and your feet will be cut off, and you will cast away your skin once in seven years. And the poison of death will be in your mouth, and dust you will eat all the days of your life.” The Jewish historian Josephus likewise made a literal application to the serpent. He indicated that God, out of indignation at the serpent’s malicious disposition toward Adam, deprived it of speech, had poison inserted under its tongue, made it an enemy of man, had its feet removed, and made it to drag itself on the ground. Additionally, God suggested to men that they should direct their strokes against the head of the serpent (the source of its malicious designs toward men). (Antiquities, I, i, 4) Of course, a serpent does not have legs, and it may be regarded as appearing to eat dust because of the proximity of its flickering tongue to the ground as it moves on its belly or rib cage. (3:14, 15)
Besides making a literal application to the serpent, Targum Jonathan includes, in God’s pronouncement of judgment, the prospect of a Messianic hope. “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between the seed of your son, and the seed of her sons; and it shall be when the sons of the woman keep the commandments of the law, they will be prepared to smite you upon your head. But when they forsake the commandments of the law, you will be ready to wound them in their heel. Nevertheless, for them there will be a medicine, but for you there will be no medicine. And they will make a remedy for the heel in the days of the King Meshiha.” In view of their understanding that the serpent was an instrument of Satan or the Devil, early Christians considered the judgment to incorporate the messianic hope. The time would come when the “seed” or offspring that would come through a woman would crush the Devil, triumphing over him and all the powers of darkness, and liberating humans from sin and its baneful consequences. Accordingly, the reference in Genesis has been applied to Jesus Christ, the promised Messiah who came to be “out of a woman” (Galatians 4:4) and who through his sacrificial death destroyed the works of the Devil (1 John 3:8), making it possible for humans to be reconciled to God as his approved children by having their sins forgiven. Jesus Christ’s being killed was comparable to his having a heel wound inflicted on him, for he recovered upon being resurrected from the dead. There is no such recovery for the Devil after he is totally crushed and God’s approved children find themselves in a completely sinless state like that of his unique Son, the resurrected Jesus Christ. (3:15)
As a consequence of the woman’s sin, her life would not be as it could have been. Bearing children would be a very painful experience. Her longing or desire (apostrophé [returning, turning back, or inclination], LXX) would be for her husband, apparently wanting his help and support, and he would lord over her. The Hebrew word for “longing” or “desire” is not limited in its application to women. In the Song of Solomon (7:10), the Shulammite said respecting her beloved that his “desire” (epistrophé [turning or attention], LXX) was for her. Sin would have effected a change in the close relationship of the man and the woman, causing him to regard her as less than a fellow partner. He would exploit her need for him and act as a master. (3:16) Targum Jonathan indicates that he would rule over her “unto righteousness and unto sin.”
The man’s failure to obey God is attributed to his listening to his wife’s words. According to Josephus, she persuaded Adam. (Antiquities, I, i, 4) In his letter to Timothy, however, the apostle Paul said that Adam was not deceived. (1 Timothy 2:14) The man made a choice to cast in his lot with his wife, making himself responsible for the entrance of sin into the world and his becoming the progenitor of only sinful or morally flawed humans. (Romans 5:12) His eating of the forbidden fruit had serious consequences for him personally. Cultivating the cursed ground to grow plants for food would prove to be an arduous task. The land would produce thorns and thistles, greatly diminishing the results from his labor. He would perspire as he worked the land. In this way, he would eat bread “in the sweat of his face.” The time would come when he would die, returning to the ground or the elements of the soil from which he had been taken. He had been taken from the dust and would return to the dust. (3:17-19) Targum Jonathan includes the thought that, in the future, the man would rise from the dust to render an account “in the day of great judgment” for all that he had done. After the divine judgment had been pronounced, the man called his wife “Eve,” meaning “Living One,” for she would become the “mother of all living” persons. (3:20)
Animals had to be slaughtered to obtain skins to clothe the man (Adam) and his wife Eve. Apparently, therefore, it would have been the first time for them to see the loss of life by a violent act that would not have occurred had they heeded God’s command. This must have made a deep, if not also highly disturbing or shocking, impression on them. Whether they discerned that a covering for the effects of sin required a sacrifice, one involving the pouring out of blood, is not stated in the account. It is, however, a conclusion many have drawn from the incident. Targum Jonathan presents a very different version of this event. For the man and his wife, God made garments of honor from the skin of the serpent that it had shed instead of the adornment (the purple robe in which they were created) that they lost when they sinned. (3:21)
YHWH God is quoted as saying, “Look, the man has become like one of us in knowing good and evil.” According to Targum Jonathan, God spoke to the “angels who ministered before him.” The quotation continues as an incomplete statement, “lest he [Adam] put forth his hand and take also from the tree of life and eat and live for limitless time —” Apparently the implied thought appears to be that preventive action needed to be taken. YHWH God expelled Adam and Eve from the garden in Eden. Outside the garden, Adam would have to cultivate the ground from which he had been taken in order for him and his wife to have food to eat. Access to the garden was barred on the east entrance, where cherubs were stationed to guard “the way to the tree of life.” Seemingly, between the cherubs the “flame of a sword” turned continually. This description fits the time when swords existed, but the reference likely is to a revolving brilliant flame that resembled the turning of the bright blade of a sword. (3:22-24)
Neither the tree of the knowledge of good and evil nor its fruit contained the essential properties for imparting knowledge. Disregard of God’s command respecting this tree made it possible for Adam and Eve to experience or come to know evil and the accompanying disturbing emotions. Prior to their transgression they had only known good. Through their disobedience, they had elevated themselves to the level of gods as persons with no authority over them to establish for them what was good and what was evil. In reality, though, they were not like God. As was the case with the tree of the knowledge of good and evil concerning the imparting of knowledge, the tree of life seemingly did not inherently have the needed properties to grant never-ending life to persons who were entitled to eat fruit from this tree. Instead, the tree served as a tangible means to assure all who were entitled to eat its fruit that they would continue to enjoy life as persons with an approved standing before God. Therefore, when Adam and Eve transgressed God’s command, they lost the right to partake of the fruit from the tree of life. Expelled from the garden, they were prohibited from access to the tree of life and any attempt to reverse the judgment of death that had been pronounced against them. They had forfeited their life, and a reversal was impossible.
According to a literal reading of the Hebrew text, “Adam knew his wife Eve.” This indicated that he knew her sexually or had intercourse with her. She gave birth to a son whom she named “Cain,” seemingly drawn from the verb meaning “acquire” and fitting the significance that Eve attached to his birth. “I have acquired a man with [the help of] YHWH,” suggesting that God had made it possible for her to have a son. (4:1)
Eve gave birth to another son. His name “Abel” may mean “emptiness,” “vanity,” or “exhalation.” Likely this name was not given to him at birth, but came to be attached to him when his life was cut short through Cain’s violent act against him. The first-century Jewish historian Josephus described Abel as a “lover of righteousness” who believed God to be “present at all his actions” and as a person who “excelled in virtue.” (Antiquities, I, ii, 1) Abel became a shepherd, and his brother Cain cultivated the soil. (4:2)
On the occasion that Cain and Abel brought their respective offerings to YHWH, they were grown men in a family that included sisters. According to Genesis 5:4, Adam fathered daughters and other sons besides Cain and Abel. So there is a possibility that there may have been offspring from sons by their sisters, for later Cain feared that he would be killed for having murdered his brother. (4:14)
Targum Jonathan says that it was the fourteenth of Nisan when Cain and Abel presented their offerings. Perhaps this was at a location near the place where the cherubs were stationed to prevent access to the garden in the region of Eden. Cain brought an offering from the produce of the ground that he had cultivated, and Abel brought an offering from the firstlings of his flock and their fat portions. YHWH approved the offering of Abel but did not look favorably upon Cain’s offering. This infuriated Cain and his countenance became downcast. (4:3-5) Regarding this development, Josephus expressed a view that may have been common among the Pharisees of the first century. It pleased God more when he “was honored with what grew naturally [firstlings from Abel’s flock] of its own accord” than “with what was the invention [cultivated plants] of a covetous man, and obtained by forcing the ground.” (Antiquities, I, ii, 1) The reading of the extant text of the Septuagint suggests that Cain failed to make the offering in an acceptable manner. “If you offer properly but did not divide properly, did you not sin?” (Genesis 4:7, LXX) According to 1 John 3:12, Cain was not in the right condition before God to make a proper sacrifice, for his “works were evil.” Josephus (Antiquities, I, ii, 1) also referred to the evil works of Cain, saying that he was “very wicked in other respects” and “wholly intent upon getting.”
After his asking Cain why he was angry and why his countenance had become downcast, YHWH, probably the “angel of YHWH,” is quoted as saying, “If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is crouching at the door and its desire is for you, and you should master it.” (See the Note regarding the “angel of YHWH.”) Targum Jonathan (thought to date probably from the second century CE) expresses the thought with additional interpretations. “If you do your work well, will not your guilt be forgiven you? But if you do not do your work well in this world, your sin is retained until the day of the great judgment, and at the doors of your heart lies your sin. And into your hand have I delivered the power over evil passion, and to you will be its inclination, that you may have authority over it to become righteous or to sin.” (4:6, 7) Cain chose not to get the mastery over the inclination to harm his brother.
The extant Hebrew text does not say what Cain said to Abel, but the Septuagint does. “Cain said to Abel his brother, Let us go into the plain.” While there alone with Abel, Cain killed him and, according to Josephus (Antiquities, I, ii, 1) hid the dead body to escape discovery. (4:8) Targum Jonathan includes the words of an argument between Cain and Abel before Cain killed him. Cain is quoted as saying, “I perceive that the world was created in goodness, but it is not governed [or conducted] according to the fruit of good works, for there is respect to persons in judgment; therefore, it is that your offering was accepted, and mine was not accepted with good will.” Abel replied, “In goodness the world was created, and it is governed according to the fruit of good works. And there is no respect of persons in judgment; but because the fruits of my works were better than yours,” my sacrifice was “accepted with good will.” Cain countered with the words, “There is neither judgment nor judge, nor another world; nor will good reward be given to the righteous, nor vengeance be taken on the wicked.” Abel replied, “There is a judgment, and there is a judge; and there is another world, and a good reward is to be given to the righteous, and vengeance is to be taken on the wicked.” Thereafter Cain rose up against his brother and “drove a stone into his forehead,” thus killing him.
When YHWH questioned him about the whereabouts of his brother Abel, Cain lyingly claimed that he did not know and, with an impudent question, callously denied any responsibility toward him. “Am I my brother’s keeper?” (4:9) After having told him that his brother’s blood was crying out from the ground for vengeance or justice, YHWH pronounced his judgment against Cain. The ground that had received the blood of his brother from his hand would be cursed ground for him. Cain would toil to cultivate the soil, but it would not produce the expected yield, and he would be a “wanderer and fugitive” on the earth,” likely meaning that he would be exiled from the land where the offspring of Adam and Eve resided. The Septuagint does not refer to his being a “wanderer and fugitive.” It says that Cain would be “groaning and trembling on the earth.” (4:10-12)
Like a hardened criminal who may regard his penalty as too harsh, Cain (according to the Hebrew text) replied that his punishment was greater than he could bear. The Septuagint rendering represents Cain as saying, “Too great [is] my sin to be forgiven.” Targum Jonathan conveys a similar thought. “Heavier is my rebellion than can be borne [away].” These words are then followed by a positive expression regarding God. “Yet there is power before you to forgive it.” Cain felt that, in view of his banishment, he would be hidden from the face of YHWH and thus left totally vulnerable. As a fugitive and a wanderer, he thought that whoever might find him would kill him. Targum Jonathan designates the one who might find Cain as “any just one,” but Josephus wrote (Antiquities, I, ii, 1) that he feared that “he should fall among wild beasts, and by that means perish.” (4:13, 14)
YHWH said to Cain that sevenfold vengeance would be exacted from anyone who would slay him, and he put a mark on Cain to indicate that he should not be killed. (4:15) Many have concluded that thereafter an identifying mark appeared on Cain’s forehead. Targum Jonathan identifies the mark as “the great and honorable name,” apparently meaning the name of God, and says that it was “sealed upon the face of Cain.”
Cain went away “from the face” or the presence of YHWH, suggesting that any past relationship with YHWH had ended. Thereafter Cain began dwelling east of the region of Eden in what came to be known as the “land of Nod.” Targum Jonathan refers to this land as “the land of the wandering of his exile.” The wife of Cain, either one of his sisters or possibly a niece, accompanied him. He “knew” her sexually or had sexual intercourse with her, and she give birth to a son named Enoch. The city Cain later built and named after this son may have consisted of a group of dwellings surrounded by a protective wall constructed from stones or timber. (4:16, 17) Josephus (Antiquities, I, ii, 2) wrote concerning this development, “He built a city, and fortified it with walls, and he compelled his family to come together to it.”
Enoch’s line of descent is traced through Irad, Mehujael, Methushael, and Lamech. With Lamech, polygamy had its start. His two wives were Adah and Zillah. According to Josephus (Antiquities, I, ii, 2), Lamech had 77 children by these two wives. The sons of Lamech made a name for themselves with their inventions. Jabal, the son by Adah, became the “father” or founder of those who lived in tents and tended flocks and herds. Jubal, Jabal’s brother, invented musical instruments — stringed instrument and pipe — and playing songs with them. Tubal-cain, Lamech’s son by Zillah, devised forging implements of copper (or brass) and iron. (4:18-22) Josephus (Antiquities, I, ii, 2) referred to him as a man who “exceeded all men in strength, and was very expert and famous in martial performances. He procured what tended to the pleasures of the body by that method.” Apparently the implements made from metal could be used as weapons, and violence came to be associated with the descendants of Cain. According to Josephus (Antiquities, I, ii, 2), “the posterity of Cain became exceedingly wicked, everyone successively dying one after another more wicked than the former.”
Lamech had a daughter by his wife Zillah, and her name was Naamah. The fact that this daughter, the sister of Tubal-cain, is mentioned by name suggests that she had a prominent role in the family, but nothing specific is mentioned about her. (4:22)
Lamech may have used a weapon his son Tubal-cain fashioned when killing a young man. Seemingly, to assure his wives Adah and Zillah that there was no reason for them to fear that vengeance would be taken against him, he said to them: “Hear my voice, you wives of Lamech; give ear to my saying. A man I have slain for wounding me, a young man for striking me. If Cain is to be avenged sevenfold, then Lamech seventy-sevenfold.” The poetic words of Lamech imply that he had far stronger reason than Cain for being avenged, for he had acted in self-defense. Targum Jonathan represents the words of Lamech as having an entirely different significance. “I have not killed a man, that I should be slain for him; neither have I destroyed a young man, on whose account my children should perish. For Cain who sinned and was converted by repentance [had protection] extended to him unto seven generations.” To Lamech, “who had not sinned, it is just that it shall be extended unto seventy-seven.”
Adam again “knew” his wife Eve or had sexual intercourse with her, and she gave birth to another son. Eve named him Seth, meaning “appointed one,” because, as she said, “God has appointed for me another seed [or offspring] instead of Abel whom Cain killed.” (4:25) Josephus (Antiquities, I, ii, 3) referred to Seth as an outstandingly good man. He “became a virtuous man; and as he was himself of an excellent character, so did he leave children behind him who imitated his virtues. All these proved to be of good dispositions. They also inhabited the same country without dissensions, and in a happy condition, without any misfortunes falling upon them till they died.”
During the lifetime of Seth’s son Enosh, certain ones “began to call on the name of YHWH.” (4:26) While some have attributed a positive meaning to this development, Targum Jonathan says the very opposite. “That was the generation in whose days they began to err, and to make themselves idols, and surnamed their idols by the name of the Word of the Lord.” The Septuagint rendering, however, does not support this significance. It indicates that that Enosh “hoped to call upon the name of the Lord God.”
As in chapter 3 and also here in chapter 4, it is probably the “angel of YHWH” who did the speaking. See the comment on Genesis 3:8 regarding this.
The introduction to this section of Genesis identifies it as the “book” of the “generations of Adam” or of his descendants. This introduction repeats words from Genesis 1:26-28, indicating that “God created man” in his “likeness.” God created them male and female, gave them the name “man,” and blessed them. Being in the “likeness” of God did not mean that Adam looked like God, but he had attributes that the animals he named did not possess. Adam could love, manifest wisdom, think, reason, be creative, and appreciate beauty and order. (5:1, 2)
After Adam lived 130 (230 [LXX]) years he became the father of a son “in his own likeness, after his image.” This son was like him and also had the flaw of the sinful condition that made it impossible for him to reflect the likeness of God in the manner his father could prior to his transgression. Adam named his son Seth. According to verse 25 of chapter 4, Seth was the name his mother Eve gave him. This suggests that Adam agreed with his wife on the name of this son who was regarded as a replacement for Abel. (5:3)
When, according to the extant Hebrew text, the ages at which Adam, Seth, Enosh, Kenan, Mehalalel, Jared, Enoch Methuselah, Lamech, and Noah became father to a son are added, the total comes to 1,456 years. The sum in the existing Septuagint text is 2,142 years. This difference exists because the age for each of the seven men from Adam through Enoch is increased by a 100 years. Additionally, Methuselah is said to have become father to Lamech at the age of 167, and Lamech to Noah at the age of 188. Instead of 167 and 188, the Hebrew text says 187 and 182. Another difference is in the number of years that Methuselah lived after becoming father to Lamech (802 years, with the age at death being 969 [as in the Hebrew text]) and the number of years Lamech lived after becoming father to Noah (565 [595, Hebrew text]) and the age at death (753 [777, Hebrew text]). In his Antiquities (I, iii, 4), Josephus follows the Septuagint for the men from Adam through Enoch but agrees with the Hebrew text for Methuselah and Lamech. (5:3-32)
The age at which Methuselah became father to Lamech as contained in the Septuagint cannot be correct, for it would mean that Methuselah lived 802 years after becoming father to Lamech and, therefore, about 14 years after the flood began (802 years minus 788 years [the age of Noah when the flood began (600 years), plus the age of Lamech at Noah’s birth (188 years [LXX])]). An ancient explanation for the addition of the 100 years is that the Septuagint translator considered the ages to be a tenth of the numbers and then added 100 when it would have been impossible for a man to have been old enough to become father to a son. He also subtracted 100 from the number of years the man lived after becoming father to a son, preserving agreement with the age at death found in the Hebrew text. The writings of Josephus are in Greek, and this probably accounts for his use of the numbers for the ages that are increased by a hundred years and, in his preface to the Antiquities (section 3), for his reference to the “sacred books” as containing a history of 5,000 years. (5:3-32)
With the exception of Jared, the Samaritan Pentateuch agrees with the Hebrew text for the ages at which each of the seven men from Adam through Enoch became father to a son. It contains different ages at which Methuselah and Lamech became fathers to a son (67 for Methuselah and 53 for Lamech). For Jared, the number of years he lived after he became father to Enoch was 785 (800 [Hebrew text]), and his age at death was 847 (962 [Hebrew text]). Disagreement with the Hebrew text also exists regarding the ages for Methuselah and Lamech after the birth of a son (653 for Methuselah and 600 for Lamech; 782 for Methuselah and 595 for Lamech [Hebrew text]) and for the ages at death (720 for Methuselah and 653 for Lamech; 969 for Methuselah and 777 for Lamech [Hebrew text]). When, according to the Samaritan Pentateuch, the ages at which each of the ten men from Adam to Noah became father to a son are added, the total comes to 1,207 years.
Only regarding Enoch and Lamech are a few details provided aside from the ages at which they fathered a son, the number of years they lived thereafter, and the total years of their life. Additional details about Enoch are found in other writings and in the book of Hebrews and the letter of Jude.
Enoch is identified as a man who “walked with God,” indicating that he proved to be a man devoted to God throughout his life. Regarding Enoch it is then stated, “He was not, for God took him.” The Septuagint reads, “Enoch pleased God well. And he was not found, for God removed him.” (5:22-24) According to the reading of Genesis 5:24 in the extant text of the Septuagint, the Greek term for the “change” or “removal” is the same as in Hebrews 11:5. Ancient Jewish writings present the view that the change or removal referred to Enoch’s being taken to another realm without undergoing death. Josephus (Antiquities, I, iii, 4) wrote that Enoch “departed and went to God,” and for this reason nothing was recorded about his death. Philo maintained that Enoch was “carried off in such a way as to be invisible, for then he was not found,” and suggested that he “was translated from a visible place, perceptible by the outward senses, into an incorporeal idea, appreciable only to the intellect.” (Book 41, Questions and Answers on Genesis, I) The “Book of Jubilees” (chapter 4) says that Enoch was conducted “into the Garden of Eden in majesty and honor.” According to chapter 12 of the Book of Enoch, “Enoch was hidden, and no one of the children of men knew where he was hidden, and where he abode, and what had become of him.” Targum Jonathan states that Enoch “ascended to the firmament,” whereas the Targum of Onkelos says that the “Lord had not made him die.”
The letter of Jude refers to Enoch as “the seventh one from Adam” and as prophesying, “Look! The Lord came with myriads of his holy ones to render judgment against all and to convict every soul [‘all the ungodly,’ according to other manuscripts] regarding all their ungodly works that they committed in an ungodly manner and regarding all the harsh [literally, ‘hard’] words [missing in numerous manuscripts] ungodly sinners have spoken against him.” (Jude 14, 15) These words indicated that God, accompanied by a host of numberless angels, would expose the record the impious had made for themselves and execute judgment against them for their words and deeds, which had dishonored him.
The Genesis account does not contain any mention of Enoch’s prophesying (verses 14 and 15 of Jude), but the same basic thought is expressed in 1 Enoch 1:9. Among the Dead Sea Scrolls, twenty fragments of the book of Enoch have been found. This is just as many fragments as were discovered for the book of Genesis, suggesting that the book of Enoch appears to have been highly valued. At the present time, only the Ethiopian Orthodox Church and the Ethiopian Jews (Beta Israel) accept 1 Enoch as part of the Scriptures.
The portion of 1 Enoch 1:9 that is preserved in 4Q204 (a manuscript thought to date from the latter part of the first century BCE but copied from a manuscript believed to have been approximately 100 years older) is very limited. Most of the text has to be reconstructed to be meaningful. In the book The Dead Sea Scrolls: A New Translation, by Michael O. Wise, Martin G. Abegg, Edward M. Cook, the rendering with the supplied parts in brackets is as follows, “[...he will come with] myri[ads of his] holy ones […] [… to judge all f]esh for [their] works [of …] […] great and harsh […].” The complete text, as preserved in the Ethiopic version (in the Ge’es language), reads, “And look! He is coming with ten thousands of his holy ones to execute judgment upon all, and to destroy all the ungodly; and to convict all flesh of all the works of their ungodliness that they have committed in an ungodly manner, and of all the hard things that ungodly sinners have spoken against him.”
Comments about Enoch contained in the Scriptures do not provide enough details for reaching any definitive conclusions about what actually happened to him after 365 years of life. It would appear that Jesus’ words (in John 3:13) do not support the view that Enoch was taken to heaven. “No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man.”
Lamech, the father of Noah, is quoted as saying about his son, “This one will bring us rest [or relief] from our work and from the toil of our hands on account of the ground that YHWH has cursed.” The thought appears to be that, during the lifetime of Noah (whose name appears to be drawn from a Hebrew word meaning “quietness,” “rest,” or “consolation”), the ground would no longer remain under the curse God expressed against it after Adam and Eve transgressed the command not to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. (5:29) Noah did not have any sons until he reached the age of 500. His three sons were named Shem, Ham, and Japheth. (5:32)
In the first century CE and in earlier centuries, the Jews regarded the names in Genesis as those of men who had actually lived, and so did the early Christians. Jesus Christ used the written record in the early chapters of Genesis in a way that recognized them to be reliable history. (Matthew 19:4, 5; 23:35; Mark 10:6-9; Luke 11:51) Many have found the reference to the long life spans of the men questionable. It should be kept in mind, though, that people lived far shorter lives when the words in Genesis were committed to writing. The collection of sacred songs known as Psalms contains the words, “The days of our years [are] seventy years and, if for [reason of] strength, eighty years.” (Psalm 90:10) Based on what is recorded about the time Noah and his family spent in the ark, the years men lived before the flood were full years and not much smaller parts of a year. (Genesis 7:11, 12, 17, 24; 8:3-6, 10-14) Nevertheless, life spans far longer than 70 or 80 years have been preserved in writing, translating, and recopying of the Genesis account. Persons who believe in God as the Creator of the first humans accept that men lived far longer in very ancient times, although no other corroborating writings exist. There is, however, a significant difference between the ages in the Genesis account and the fantastically huge number of years that antedeluvian rulers are said to have reigned. The Sumerian King List, for example, indicates the length of the reigns of eight rulers to have been 28,800, 36,000, 43,200, 28,800, 36,000, 28,800, 21,000, and 18,600 years respectively.
Millions of people today would be unable to trace their ancestry back for more than 400 years, and no one can definitively verify the exact length of life spans of their earliest ancestors who lived thousands of years ago. As to what conclusion individuals may draw about the ages recorded in the book of Genesis, this depends on whether they believe that God is the Creator of the first humans or that he does not exist. Just because a person cannot prove the existence of ancestors beyond a relatively recent time in history does not establish that earlier ancestors who accomplished remarkable tasks never lived. Likewise, one cannot prove that there is no God or that he had no part in bringing earthly life into existence. At a certain point in history, we reach a beginning for humankind, and Genesis identifies YHWH as the Creator and the God who is linked to that beginning.
After the human population had increased significantly, certain “sons of God” began to notice that the women (literally, “daughters of the man” [the earthling]) were attractive. Of their choosing or to their liking, these “sons of God” took wives from among the women. Targum Jonathan says that these women were beautiful, painted, and curled (apparently having curled their hair). They walked about with “revelation of flesh” or with much of their body exposed and with thoughts of wickedness. (6:1, 2)
Verse 6 of the letter of Jude indicates the “sons of God” to have been “angels who did not keep their original place for themselves, but left their own dwelling.” The Genesis account makes no mention about the punishment inflicted on these “sons of God.” Sources familiar to Jews living in the first century CE, however, did include references to their punishment as being restraint in bonds and confinement in a place of darkness. This is also mentioned in verse 6 of the letter of Jude and 2 Peter 2:4.
First Enoch 12:4 identifies the “sons of God as “the Watchers of the heaven” who “left the high heaven, the holy eternal place,” and took “wives for themselves.” As to their punishment, 1 Enoch 10:11 says that God instructed the angel Michael to “bind Semjâzâ and his associates who have united themselves with women so as to have defiled themselves with them in all their uncleanness.” This binding is not represented as their final punishment, but they are said to remain in their bound state until “the day of their judgment and of their consummation.” (1 Enoch 10:12) “In those days they shall be led off to the abyss of fire.” (1 Enoch 10:13) Regarding Azâzêl, God directed the angel Raphael to bind him “hand and foot,” and to “cast him into the darkness.” He would then remain bound and in a state of total darkness until the “day of the great judgment,” at which time he would be thrown “into the fire.” (1 Enoch 10:4-6)
There is uncertainty about the significance of the Hebrew word dun in the opening sentence of verse 3. A literal rendering of the sentence could be, “And YHWH said, My spirit will not contend [dun] in [or with] man for limitless time.” This could mean that YHWH ’s spirit or attitude toward wayward humans would change. He would cease to trouble himself with them, refraining from executing severe punitive judgment. The Septuagint conveys a different meaning. “And the Lord God said, By no means [literally, not, not] will my spirit remain in these men.” This could signify that God would not allow the life force or life principle that he had imparted to humans continue to animate them. Man was but “flesh,” a mere mortal who had no strength to resist God in carrying out his purpose. YHWH determined to tolerate corrupt humans for no more than 120 years and to act against them after the allotted time was up. According to Targum Jonathan, the practicers of wickedness were given an extension of 120 years so that they might come to repentance and not perish. (6:3)
At the time the “sons of God” had sexual relations with women (literally, “the daughters of the man”), the “Nephilim” were on the earth. The designation “Nephilim” means “fellers” or individuals who caused other persons to fall by violent means. In the Septuagint, they are called “giants.” They were mighty men, “men of name,” but not men of renown known for good deeds. As the offspring of the “sons of God,” they apparently were men of extraordinary strength. (6:4) Josephus, in his Antiquities (I, iii, 1), referred to them as the offspring of “angels of God” and described them as unjust and as men who despised everything good, “on account of the confidence they had in their own strength.” The “tradition is that these men did what resembled the acts of those whom the Grecians call giants.”
The Nephilim and their fathers must have greatly contributed to the extreme corruption that came to exist among the people of that time. This did not escape the attention of YHWH. He saw that the “wickedness of man” was great. In their thoughts, humans continually were focused only on bad. The complete moral breakdown that existed caused YHWH to look with regret upon his having made man because of how evil humankind had become. He was grieved or pained at heart or in his inmost being. Therefore, YHWH purposed to blot out man, beast, crawling creature, and bird. The evil for which man was responsible had led to impending calamitous results for the whole environment, including the animals. This is still true of the environmental ruin that humans cause and which brings about the destruction of animal life. (6:5-7)
Among his contemporaries, Noah “found favor in the eyes of YHWH.” He was an upright, blameless man, one who “walked with God,” or a man who conducted himself with a wholesome regard for God and according to the guidance of his God-given conscience. Noah was the father of three sons — Shem, Ham, and Japheth. (6:8-10)
As an upright God-fearing man, Noah remained undefiled by the corruption and the violence that “filled the earth.” In view of the corruption that came to exist among “all flesh,” or all the other humans then alive, YHWH revealed to Noah his purpose to destroy “all flesh.” The destruction of corrupt humankind was to be “with the earth,” indicating that everything on the land in the then-existing condition would come to an end. (6:11-13)
For the preservation of his life, that of seven immediate family members, and that of animals, Noah was divinely directed to build an “ark,” a huge rectangular box-like vessel. Gópher is the Hebrew word for the wood that was to be used for the construction of the ark. There is uncertainty about which tree the term gópher designated. The Septuagint rendering is “squared [lengths of] wood.” The lumber may have been obtained from a resinous tree like the cypress. Compartments were to be constructed in the interior of the ark. To make the vessel watertight, both the interior and exterior were to be covered with pitch. Based on a cubit of 18 inches (c. 46 centimeters), the ark was 450 feet (c. 137 meters; 300 cubits) long, 75 feet wide (c. 23 meters; 50 cubits), and 45 feet high (c. 13.7 meters; 30 cubits) high. (6:14, 15; see the Notes section.)
There is uncertainty about the meaning of the feature of the ark that is designated as the tsóhar. Perhaps the word tsóhar referred to an 18-inch (c. 46-centimeter; 1-cubit) opening below the roof of the ark and on all four sides of the vessel. Such an opening would have provided needed ventilation and some daylight. The entrance of the ark was on its side, and the interior of the vessel had three decks. (6:16)
YHWH revealed to Noah that he would flood the earth, destroying human and animal life. He concluded a covenant with Noah, his wife, his three sons, and the wives of his three sons. That covenant assured them that they would survive the deluge. To preserve every kind of bird, animal, or crawling creature, Noah was to bring two of each, male and female, into the ark. Additionally, he was to arrange for provisions of food to last for the duration of the flood. Noah followed through on everything he had been commanded to do. (6:17-22; see the Notes section.)
There is archaeological evidence for a cubit of approximately 17.5 inches (44.5 centimeters). This would make the dimensions of the ark approximately 438 feet (133.5 meters) by 73 feet (22 meters) by 44 feet (13.4 meters). Possibly the cubit was significantly longer.
In the then-existing generation, among the contemporaries of Noah, YHWH found him to be righteous and, therefore, directed that he and his household enter the ark. Of the clean animals, he was to take seven pairs (literally, “seven, seven” [or seven by seven]), male and female, and one pair, male and female of unclean animals, into the ark. At the time Noah lived, no distinction existed between animals that were clean or suitable for food and those which were not. When, however, the narrative was committed to writing, the people of Israel were fully aware of the distinction and needed no explanation as to what was meant. To preserve all the different kinds of birds, Noah was told to select seven pairs of each kind, male and female. It appears that seven days were allotted for Noah and his family to bring all the animals and birds and the essential supply of food into the ark. Targum Jonathan (thought to date probably from the second century CE) indicates that the seven-day period was granted so that the people might repent. If they repented, God would forgive them. If, however, they did not change, God decreed that he would cause rain to come down upon the earth. It would rain for forty days and forty nights, leading to a deluge that would destroy every living thing on the surface of the land. (7:1-4)
Based on the ages of the men listed in Genesis chapter 5, Methuselah died in the year the deluge began. This may be the reason that Targum Jonathan also refers to the seven-day period before the downpour began as a time of mourning for Methuselah. The mourning for Methuselah, however, did not cause the people to turn away from their wayward conduct.
Noah did exactly what he had been commanded to do. He was then in his 600th year of life. To escape the deluge, he, his wife, his sons, and their wives entered the ark. The clean and the unclean animals, birds, and crawling creatures, two by two, male and female, went into the ark as God had commanded Noah. Just as God had revealed, the waters of the flood came down upon the earth at the end of seven days. On the seventeenth day of the second month, the downpour began. Targum Jonathan refers to the “second month” as Marchesvan (Heshvan; mid-October to mid-November), for formerly “the months had been numbered from Tishri” (mid-September to mid-October), “which was the beginning of the year at the completion of the world.” Rain from the sky above and water on the earth below (“all the fountains of the great deep” that had “burst forth”) began to cover the land as the rain continued without letup for forty days and forty nights. (7:5-12)
All who had entered the ark were safe — Noah, his wife, his three sons Shem, Ham, and Japheth, and their wives, and every kind of beast, domestic animal, crawling creature, and bird, male and female, that had gone into the ark with Noah. As the flood waters rose, no one could come into the ark, for YHWH had closed the entrance. Once the flood waters rose high enough to cover land, including the higher elevations, the ark began to float. All hills and mountains (the then-existing highest elevations on the flooded land) were covered with water. The reference to fifteen cubits (22.5 feet; c. 7 meters) may indicate that the depth of the water over the highest elevations corresponded to the approximate draft of the ark. Every bird, domestic animal, beast, crawling creature, and human outside the ark died — “all flesh” or every living fleshly creature, the life of which depended on breathing (the “breath of life” in the nostrils). YHWH blotted out every living creature. Only Noah, members of his family, and the living creatures with him inside the ark survived. For 150 days the waters of the deluge remained unabated. (7:13-24)
After the flood had overwhelmed the land for 150 days (7:24), YHWH remembered or directed his attention to Noah and all the other occupants inside the ark and caused a drying wind to blow across the earth. Then the waters began to recede. (8:1)
“The fountains of the deep” (abyss [LXX]) and the “windows of the heavens” (“cataracts of heaven” [LXX]) were stopped up. At the start of the deluge, the “fountains” were the source of water that had burst forth from the land below, and the “windows of the heavens” were like floodgates that had been opened to let huge quantities of water descend as rain from the sky above. The stopping up of all sources for additional water made it possible for the floodwaters to recede progressively after the period of 150 days. (8:2, 3)
On the seventeenth day of the seventh month (Nisan [Targum Jonathan], mid-March to mid-April), the floodwaters had diminished sufficiently for the ark to come to rest on the mountains of Ararat. In his Antiquities (I, iii, 5), Josephus referred to the place where the ark rested as a “certain mountain in Armenia” (a mountain in what is today eastern Turkey). The floodwaters continued to recede until the tenth month (Tammuz [Targum Jonathan], mid-June to mid-July). On the first day of the tenth month (eleventh month [LXX] or Ab, mid-July to mid-August), the tops of the mountains became visible. (8:4, 5)
Noah had made a “window” in the ark. He opened this window at the “end of 40 days” and released a raven. As the raven flew to and fro until the floodwaters had dried up from the earth, Noah was unable to determine anything specific about the conditions outside the ark. Therefore, he next released a dove to see whether the floodwaters had receded from the surface of the land. With the floodwaters still covering the land, the dove located no place to settle and flew back to the ark. Noah then reached out his hand to the bird and brought it inside through the open window. He waited another seven days and again sent out the dove. This time the bird returned toward evening with a freshly plucked olive leaf in its beak. Josephus, in his Antiquities (I, iii, 5), added that the dove was “covered with mud.” Based on the evidence from the return of the dove, Noah knew that the floodwaters had diminished. When, after seven days, he sent forth the dove once more, the bird did not return to him. (8:6-12)
By the first day of the first month (Tishri [Targum Jonathan]; mid-September to mid-October) in the 601st year of Noah’s life, the floodwaters had begun to dry off from the surface of the land. Upon removing the cover of the ark, probably meaning a section thereof that made it possible for him to see the terrain, Noah determined that the ground was dry. On the twenty-seventh day of the second month (Marchesvan (Targum Jonathan), Heshvan; mid-October to mid-November), the earth or land was found to be dry. (8:13, 14)
God directed Noah and his family, together with every bird, land animal, and crawling creature, to leave the ark after having been inside for over one year. (Compare Genesis 7:11 with 8:14.) The living creatures that had survived inside the ark were to breed and increase greatly on the land. Noah, his wife, his three sons, and their wives, and every beast, crawling creature, and bird came out of the ark according to their respective kinds or “families” as had been divinely commanded. (8:15-19) In his Antiquities (I, iii, 5, 6), Josephus commented about the place where all the occupants of the ark made their exit. “The Armenians call this place (Apobatérion) The Place of Descent; for the ark being saved in that place, its remains are shown there by the inhabitants to this day. Now all the writers of barbarian histories make mention of this flood, and of this ark” Among them is Berosus the Chaldean. After describing the circumstances of the flood, Berosus continued: “It is said there is still some part of this ship in Armenia, at the mountain of the Cordyaeans; and that some people carry off pieces of the bitumen, which they take away, and use chiefly as amulets for the averting of mischiefs.” Hieronymus the Egyptian who wrote the Phoenician Antiquities, and Mnaseas, and a “great many more, make mention of the same.” Nicolaus of Damascus, in his ninety-sixth book, is quoted as having written: “There is a great mountain in Armenia, over Minyas, called Baris, upon which it is reported that many who fled at the time of the Deluge were saved; and that one who was carried in an ark came on shore upon the top of it; and that the remains of the timber were a great while preserved. This might be the man about whom Moses the legislator of the Jews wrote.”
Likely in gratitude for having been saved from the deluge, Noah built an altar and sacrificed creatures from among the clean ones as holocausts or burnt offerings. These creatures would have been domestic animals like bovines, sheep, and goats, and birds like doves. YHWH is represented as “smelling” the “pleasing odor” of the sacrificial victims or as recognizing the offerings as acceptable. (8:20, 21) Targum Jonathan says that Noah “took of all clean cattle, and of all clean fowl, and sacrificed four upon that altar. And the Lord accepted his oblation with favor.” Josephus did not identify Noah’s offering up clean animals on the erected altar as an expression of thanksgiving. He wrote, “As for Noah, he was afraid, since God had determined to destroy mankind, lest he should drown the earth every year; so he offered burnt offerings, and entreated God that nature might hereafter go on in its former orderly course, and that he would not bring on so great a judgment any more, by which the whole race of creatures might be in danger of destruction.” Josephus also referred to Noah as entreating God “to accept of his sacrifice, and to grant that the earth might never again undergo the like effects of his wrath; that men might be permitted to go on cheerfully in cultivating the [land]; to build cities, and live happily in them; and that they might not be deprived of any of those good things which they enjoyed before the flood.” (Antiquities, I, iii, 7)
“In his heart” or within himself, YHWH is represented as saying that he would never again curse the ground on man’s account, the reason being that, from youth onward, the inclination of the human “heart” or the inmost self has been toward bad. Although a corrupt human society perished in the deluge, this did not eradicate the serious moral flaw with which Adam infected his offspring by the transgression that alienated him from God. The frightening atrocities, acts of violence, oppression, fraud, and other evils that humans have committed in past centuries down to the present time undeniably prove that the serious moral flaw continues to exist. In view of inherent human sinfulness, YHWH purposed not again to destroy every living creature as he had by means of the deluge. (8:21)
“All the days,” or for as long as, the earth remained, the natural cycles would not end. “Seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter [spring (LXX)], and day and night would not cease. Targum Jonathan is more specific in referring to “sowing in the season of Tishri” (mid-September to mid-October), “harvest in the season of Nisan” (mid-March to mid-April), “coldness in the season of Tebeth” (mid-December to mid-January), and “warmth in the season of Tammuz” (mid-June to mid-July). (8:22)
With God’s blessing upon Noah and his sons, the family was to repopulate the earth or land. Although Noah and his family were permitted to add meat to their diet, land and marine creatures and birds would continue to have a natural fear of them. This suggested that wild animals would not pose a threat to the deluge survivors. To the present time, even predators commonly avoid contact with humans. (9:1-3)
When killing an animal for food, Noah and his family were not to eat the blood. A creature’s life depended on the blood. Seemingly for this reason, the blood is referred to as “its soul” or its life. Targum Jonathan (thought to probably date from the second century CE) does not include the prohibition against eating blood. It rules out eating flesh that is torn from an animal that is still alive or from a slaughtered animal while there yet remains breath in it. (9:4)
God revealed that he would require an accounting from any beast or human responsible for shedding the lifeblood of any person. This accounting authorized capital punishment for murder and killing any animal that killed a human. The taking of human life showed disregard for the reality that man was made in the “image of God” and so was a unique creation with the capacity to love, to manifest wisdom, justice, and compassion, and to value and appreciate beauty and order. (9:5, 6) According to Targum Jonathan, “the judges, by witnesses,” were to condemn the murderer to death. If there were no witnesses, God himself would “bring punishment on him in the day of the great judgment.”
The family of Noah was to increase greatly in numbers, and God assured Noah and his sons that they and all the other occupants of the ark would never again experience a deluge. “For all future generations,” God made a covenant or solemn agreement with all the deluge survivors that never again would “all flesh be cut off by the waters of a flood.” The rainbow was to serve as a sign of this covenant. Whenever the rainbow appeared “in the clouds,” God would remember the “everlasting covenant” between himself and every living soul of all flesh [or every mortal creature] that is upon the earth.” (9:7-17)
Of Noah’s three sons Shem, Ham, and Japheth (the ancestors of the post-flood human family), Ham, the father of Canaan, became the focus on account of a disrespectful act toward his father. Noah became intoxicated from the fermented juice of the grapes he obtained from the vineyard he had planted. In his drunken state, he lay exposed in his tent. Ham witnessed his father’s nakedness and told his two brothers about it. Shem and Japheth then took a garment, placed it on their shoulders and, walking backwards, covered their father’s nudity without looking upon it. (9:18-23)
In Leviticus chapter 18, the expression “to uncover nakedness” refers to illicit sexual relationships. This has provided the basis for a conjecture that Canaan may have been involved in a perverse act toward his intoxicated grandfather and that Ham failed to respond with appropriate corrective action. When Noah woke up from the effects of the wine he had drunk, he learned what his “youngest son had done to him.” It seems somewhat unusual that Ham would be called the “youngest son,” for he is always mentioned in the second place (Shem, Ham, and Japheth). Possibly, therefore, the designation “youngest son” applies to the grandson Canaan. (9:24) The comments of Josephus do not support this conjecture. He understood the “youngest son” to be Ham and wrote that the “youngest son” saw sleeping Noah in his intoxicated state lying “naked in an unseemly manner.” “When his youngest son saw this, he came laughing, and showed him to his brothers; but they covered their father’s nakedness.” As to the reason Noah did not curse Ham, Josephus wrote that it was on account of “his nearness in blood” or because Ham was a closer blood relative to Noah than his offspring would have been. “When the rest of [the offspring of Ham] escaped that curse, God inflicted it on the children of Canaan.” (Antiquities, I, vi, 3)
Upon coming to know what had happened, Noah pronounced a curse on Canaan, indicating that he would become “a slave of slaves to his brothers.” Noah also said, “Blessed [or praised be] YHWH, the God of Shem, and let Canaan be his slave.” Seemingly, the prophetic curse on Canaan pointed forward to the time when the descendants of Shem, the people of Israel, would subjugate the Canaanites and make the survivors of the conquest of the land of Canaan their slaves. It is noteworthy that the Canaanites were known for engaging in abhorrent sexual practices, and the earliest sign of this may have already been in evidence in the case of Ham’s son Canaan. (9:25, 26)
Noah continued, “May God enlarge Japheth,” either greatly increasing the number of his descendants or expanding the boundaries of the territory in which they would reside. Let Japheth “dwell in the tents of Shem, and let Canaan be his slave.” The form of the Hebrew word for “enlarge” or “expand” consists of the same consonants as does the proper name “Japheth” and, therefore, the verb and the proper name constitute a wordplay. Descendants of Japheth (Persians, Greeks, and Romans) did conquer Canaanite territory in later centuries, and this may be regarded as fulfillment of the prophetic words that Canaan would become a slave of Japheth. As for Japheth dwelling “in the tents of Shem,” this could mean that the descendants of Japheth would at a future time derive benefits from the descendants of Shem. (9:27) One great benefit was the translation of the sacred writings from Hebrew and Aramaic into Greek and the associated spread of the knowledge about the one true God, YHWH. Targum Jonathan indicates that the sons or descendants of Japheth would become proselytes and “dwell in the schools of Shem.”
After the deluge, Noah lived an additional 350 years and died at the age of 950. (9:28, 29) Commenting on the long lives of Noah and others, Josephus (Antiquities, I, iii, 9) wrote: “Let no one, upon comparing the lives of the ancients with our lives, and with the few years which we now live, think that what we have said of them is false; or make the shortness of our lives at present an argument that neither did they attain to so long a duration of life, for those ancients were beloved of God, and [lately] made by God himself; and because their food was then fitter for the prolongation of life, might well live so great a number of years: and besides, God afforded them a longer time of life on account of their virtue and the good use they made of it in astronomical and geometrical discoveries.”
After the deluge, Noah’s sons fathered their own sons. The sons of Japheth were Gomer, Magog, Madai, Javan, Tubal, Meshech, and Tiras. (10:1, 2) Gomer’s sons were Ashkenaz, Riphath, and Togarmah. Javan became father to Elishah, Tarshish, Kittim, and Dodanim. The descendants of Japheth settled in the coastlands. In their territories, they became families and nations and came to speak their own distinctive languages. (10:3-5)
Josephus indicated that the area where the descendants of the sons of Noah settled became known by the name of their forebears. By the time he wrote in the first century CE, some of the original names of the regions had been lost, but others could still be recognized. He attributed to the Greeks changes in names that sounded better to them than the original designations. (Antiquities, I, v) Gomer has been linked to the Cimmerians who settled in the vicinity of the Black Sea. The descendants of Magog may have inhabited the region to the south of Gomer. Madai has been identified with the Medes, Javan with the Greeks, and Tubal with the Tabalu mentioned in Assyrian inscriptions. The descendants of Tubal are thought to have inhabited a region in eastern Asia Minor. Meshech’s descendants may also have resided in Asia Minor and may be identified with the Mushku to which people references are found in Assyrian inscriptions. A possible identification for Tiras may be the seafaring people known to the ancient Greeks as Tyrsenoi. Ashkenaz has been identified with the Scythians who settled north of the Black Sea. The descendants of Riphath may have lived in the northwestern part of Asia Minor. Togarmah has been linked to the Armenians. Elishah has been associated with various locations — Crete, Italy, and Cyprus. Tarshish has been linked to the Iberian Peninsula, Kittim to Cyprus, and Dodanim (or Rodanim) to the island of Rhodes.
The comments of Josephus probably reflect views that were current among Jews in the first century CE. He indicated that the descendants of the seven sons of Iaphtha (Japheth; Iapheth [LXX]) “occupied first the mountains of Tauros [Taurus, a mountain range in southern Asia Minor] and Amanos [Amanus, a mountain range in Asia Minor] and proceeded through Asia as far as the river Tanais [the Don River in European Russia) and across Europe as far as Gadeira [Cadiz, a city in southern Spain], settling the lands they encountered where none had lived before, and calling the nations by their own names. Gomaros [Gomer; Gamer (LXX)] founded those whom the Greeks now call Galatians, but were then called Gomarites. Magoges [Magog (Hebrew and LXX)] founded the Magogites after himself, whom they call Scythians. The sons of Iaphtha [Japheth; Iapheth (LXX)], Iauanos [Javan; Ioyan (LXX)] and Mados [Madai], were also founders of nations: from Mados [Madai] came the Madaians, whom the Greeks call Medes, and from Iauanos [Javan; Ioyan (LXX)] are descended Ionia and all the Greeks. Theobelos [Tubal; Thobel (LXX)] founded the Theobelians, who are now called Iberes [Iberians]. The Meschenians were founded by Meschos [Meshech; Mosoch (LXX)] and are now called Cappadocians, though a trace of their ancient name is still visible, for there is still among them a city called Mazaca, an indication to those who understand such things that this was once the name of the whole nation. Theires [Tiras; Thiras (LXX)] called his subjects Theirians, but the Greeks changed the name into Thracians. … Of the three sons of Gomaros [Gomer; Gamer (LXX)], Aschanaxes [Ashkenaz; Aschanaz (LXX)] founded the Aschanaxians, who are now called by the Greeks Reginians; and Riphath founded the Riphathaians, now called Paphlagonians, and Thugrames [Togarmah; Thorgama (LXX)] the Thugramaians, whom the Greeks called Phrygians. Of the three sons of Iauanos [Javan; Ioyan (LXX)], son of Iaphtha [Japheth; Iapheth (LXX)], Halisas [Elishah; Elisa (LXX)] named the Halisaians whom he ruled, who are now the Aiolians [Aelonians]; and Tharsos [Tarshish; Tharsis (LXX)] (the former designation of Cilicia) named the Tharsians, an indication [for the name Tharsos being] the name of their noblest city and metropolis Tarsus, the tau having replaced the theta. Chethimos [Kittim; Kitioi (Kitians), LXX] occupied the island of Chethimaand, now called Cyprus, from which all islands and most of the seacoasts are called by the Hebrews Chethim [Kittim], an indication of which is that one city in Cyprus has kept that name. It is called Kition by those who use the Greek language, not far removed from the name Chethim [Kittim]. … To please my readers, the names are here rendered in the Greek style, as our native language does not pronounce them like that.” (Antiquities, I, vi, 1)
The sons of Ham were Cush, Mizraim, Put, and Canaan. Descendants of Cush are thought to have settled in ancient Ethiopia, those of Mizraim in Egypt, and the offspring of Put in Libya. Descendants of Canaan occupied the Levant, the region that borders the easternmost part of the Mediterranean Sea and includes the land that the people of Israel occupied in later centuries. (10:6) Josephus made the same identification. “Of the four sons of Ham, time has in no way changed the name of Chousaios [Cush; Chous (LXX)], for his Ethiopian descendants … are even to this day called Chousaioi [Cushites], both by themselves and by everyone in Asia. … All of us living [in Judea] call Egypt Merse and the Egyptians Mersaians. Phoutes [Put; Phoud (LXX)] was the founder of Libya and called the inhabitants Phoutians, after himself. … Chananaios [Canaan], the fourth son of Chamas [Ham; Cham (LXX)], lived in the country now called Judea and called it by his own name Chananaia [Canaan; Chanaan (LXX)].” (Antiquities, I, vi, 2) The sons of Cush were Seba, Havilah, Sabtah, Raamah, and Sabteca; and Sheba and Dedan were the sons of Raamah. Their descendants may have lived in Arabia, probably in the southwestern part of the peninsula. (10:7)
The son of Cush who made a name for himself among his contemporaries was Nimrod. He was the first one to distinguish himself as a “mighty man” (a hero or a warrior) and a “mighty hunter before the face of YHWH.” (10:8, 9) From ancient times the expression “before the face of YHWH” has been understood to mean that Nimrod acted defiantly toward God. Targum Jonathan (thought to date probably from the second century CE) says about Nimrod that “he began to be mighty in sin, and to rebel before YY [Yeya (YHWH)] in the earth. He was a mighty rebel before YY [Yeya (YHWH); therefore, it is said, From the day that the world was created there has not been [one like] Nimrod, mighty in hunting, and a rebel before YY [Yeya (YHWH)].” In the first century CE, Josephus also expressed himself to this effect. Nimrod was a bold man of great strength who incited his contemporaries to have contempt for God and persuaded them not to attribute their prosperity to God, but to ascribe it to their own courage. “He also gradually changed the government into tyranny, seeing no other way to turn men away from the fear of God and to bring them into a constant dependence upon his power.” (Antiquities, I, iv, 2)
Nimrod began to exercise dominion over his contemporaries in the “land of Shinar,” the region between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. His kingdom had its beginning over the cities of Babel (Babylon [LXX]), Erech, Accad, and Calneh. From Shinar he headed northward, probably in command of a military force intent on seizing territory in Asshur (Assyria). There he later directed the building of the cities of Nineveh, Rehoboth-Ir, Calah, and Resen situated between Nineveh and Calah. The “great city” apparently was Nineveh, with Rehoboth-Ir, Calah, and Resen being suburbs. (10:10-12)
Mizraim, the son of Cush, became father to Ludim, Anamim, Lehabim, Naphtuhim, Pathrusim, Casluhim, and Caphtorim. All seven names are plural and, therefore, may be understood to represent distinct peoples or tribes, the majority of whom settled in northern Africa. Casluhim is identified as the one from whom the Philistines came. The Philistines took up residence on the southeastern coast of the Mediterranean Sea. Josephus (Antiquities, I, vi, 2) wrote that the descendants of Mersaios (Mizraim; Mesraim [LXX]) possessed the region “from Gaza to Egypt.” Lehabim (Labimos [Josephus]; Loudiim [LXX]) “settled alone in Libya and called the country after himself.” With reference to his own time, Josephus said, “Of Nedemos [Naphtuhim; Nephthaliim (LXX)] and Pethrosimos [Pathrusim; Patrosoniim (LXX)] and Chesloimos [Casluhim; Chasloniim (LXX)] and Cephthomos [Caphtorim; Caphthoriim (LXX)] we know nothing except their names, for the Ethiopian war … destroyed those cities.” (10:13, 14)
The firstborn son of Canaan was Sidon (Sidonios, Josephus). According to Josephus (Antiquities, I, vi, 2), Sidonios “built a city of the same name,” and the Greeks called it Sidon. This city has been identified with modern Saida, a coastal city of southwestern Lebanon. Other offspring of Canaan included Heth, Jebusites, Amorites, Girgashites, Hivites, Arkites, Sinites, Arvadites, Zemarites, Hamathites. It appears that Josephus referred to the Hamathites as “Amathous who lived in Amathine, which the locals even now call Amathe, although the Macedonians gave it the name Epiphania.” Josephus continued, “Aroudaios (Arvadites; Aradios [LXX]) occupied the island of Aradus [an island off the northern coast of Syria], and Aroukaios (Arkites; Aroukaios [LXX]) occupied Arke in Libanus [Lebanon]. Of the seven others, Euaios [Hivites; Euaios (LXX)] , Chettaios [Heth (Hittites); Chettaios (LXX)], Iebousaios [Jebusites; Iebousaios (LXX), Amorraios [Amorites; Amorraios (LXX)], Gergesaios [Gergashites; Gergesaios (LXX)], Seinaios (Sinites, Asennaios [LXX]), and Samaraios [Zemarites; Samaraios (LXX), we have nothing from the sacred books except their names, for the Hebrews destroyed their cities.” (10:15-18)
The territory that the Canaanites occupied extended from coastal city of Sidon in the north to Gerar and nearby Gaza in the south. From Gaza, Canaanite territory extended eastward to the cities of Sodom, Gomorrah, Admah, and Zeboiim in the Dead Sea area and then either near or as far as Lasha. (10:19)
The concluding words about the “sons” or descendants of Ham relate to the respective regions of their residence after all of them began to speak their own distinctive languages. “These [were] the sons of Ham by their families, by their languages, in their lands, according to their nations.” (10:20)
Noah’s son Shem also fathered sons. All the “sons” or descendants of Eber came through the line of Shem. The apparent reason for the focus on Eber is that the people of Israel descended from him through Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. In his Antiquities (I, vi, 4), Josephus wrote that it was from Heber that the Jews were originally called Hebrews. The Hebrew text could be understood to indicate that Shem was either the older brother of Japheth or that Japheth was Shem’s older brother. According to the rendering of the Septuagint, Japheth is definitely identified as the “greater” or the “older” (“brother of Iapheth [Japheth] the greater [or the older]).” (10:21)
Shem’s sons were Elam, Asshur, Arpachshad, Lud, and Aram. In the Septuagint, “Kainan” (Cainan) is mentioned after Aram, and Arpachshad (Arphaxad) is referred to as the father of Kainan. The name Kainan is missing in the Hebrew text, but it is included in the genealogy of Jesus Christ. (Luke 3:36) Josephus (Antiquities, I, vi, 4) also omitted Kainan and referred to Shem as having five, not six, sons. The sons of Aram were Uz, Hul, Gether, and Mash. Arpachshad became father to Shelah (or, according to the Septuagint, to Kainan [Cainan] and Kainan to Sala [Shelah]), and Shelah to Eber. Eber had two sons, Peleg and Joktan. The reason for the name Peleg was that in this son’s “days” the earth was “divided.” Josephus (Antiquities, I, vi, 4) wrote that Phalegos (Peleg; Phalek [LXX]) “was born at the dispersion of the nations to their several countries; for phalek, among the Hebrews, signifies division.” This dispersion took place after the confusion of the language while the tower at Babel was in the process of being built. (10:22-25; 11:7, 8)
According to Josephus (Antiquities, I, vi, 4), the descendants of Shem’s sons resided in the region that extended from the Euphrates River to the Indian Ocean. “Elymos [Elam; Ailam (LXX)] left behind him the Elymaians [Elamites], the ancestors of the Persians. Assouras [Asshur; Assour (LXX)] lived at the city of Ninon [Nineveh] and named his subjects Assourians [Assyrians], who prospered greatly. Arphaxades [Arpachshad; Arphaxad (LXX]) named the Arphaxadaians, now called the Chaldaians [Chaldeans]. Aramos [Aram (LXX)] had the Aramaians, whom the Greeks call Syrians. … Loudas [Lud; Loud (LXX)] founded the Loudians, now called Lydians. Of the four sons of Aramos [Aram (LXX)], Ouses [Uz; Os (LXX)] founded Trachonitis and Damaskus [Damascus]. This country is between Palestine and Coele-Syria. Otros [Ouros; Ul; Oul (LXX)] founded Armenia, and Getheres [Gether; Gather (LXX)] the Bactrians, and Mesas [Mash; Mosoch (LXX)] the Mesanaians in the region now called Charax Spasini [a place between the mouths of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers].”
Peleg’s brother Joktan became father to Almodad, Sheleph, Hazarmaveth, Jerah, Hadoram, Uzal, Diklah, Obal, Abimael, Sheba, Ophir, Havilah, and Jobab. (10:26-29) The region in which they settled is described as extending from Mesha (Masse [LXX] as far as Sephar (Sophera [LXX]), “to the mountainous area of the east.” It is likely that the settlements were in the Arabian Peninsula, possibly as far south as Yemen. Josephus (Antiquities, I, vi, 4) indicates that they resided in the region around Kophenos (Cophen), a river of India, and the adjoining part of Asia. (10:26-30)
The concluding statements regarding the “sons” or descendants of Shem and the families of the descendants of Noah pertain to the situation that existed after the dispersion on account of the confusion of the language. “These [were] the sons [or descendants] of Shem by their families, by their languages, in their lands, according to their nations. These [were] the families of Noah’s sons [or descendants] according to their genealogies, by their nations, and from these the nations spread abroad on the earth after the deluge.” (10:31, 32)
To indicate the differences in the spelling of the names found both in the Greek text of Josephus and in the Septuagint, these names have been transliterated to correspond more closely to the Greek. Therefore, the transliterated names in the text of Josephus differ from those in English translations of the works of Josephus. Other minor changes have also been made in the wording of the translated text.
As the descendants of Noah’s family increased in number, they continued to have one “language” and the same “words,” the same vocabulary, or the same way of expressing themselves. According to the Septuagint, the people had “one lip and one voice,” sound, or pronunciation. Both in the Hebrew text and in the Septuagint, the entire human population that then lived on the land is referred to as “all the earth.” (11:1)
From the original location where the family of Noah first lived after the deluge, a significant number of their descendants moved eastward. They found a “plain in the land of Shinar,” a region between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, and settled there. In the vicinity, stone was not available for building projects. Therefore, the people decided to use kiln-dried bricks made from clay and bitumen for mortar. Their plan was to build a city and a very high tower (a tower with its top in the heavens or reaching up to the clouds). They also wanted to make a “name” for themselves, not wanting to be scattered over the surface of “all the earth” or over the extensive land areas that they knew existed. The “name” they wanted to make for themselves apparently was that of a reputation that defied God and opposed his purpose for the human family to spread abroad throughout the vast regions of land. (11:2-4)
In his Antiquities (I, iv, 2, 3), Josephus attributed to Nimrod the building project in the land of Shinar. Nimrod persuaded the multitude that “he would be revenged on God, if he should have a mind to drown the world again; for that he would build a tower too high for the waters to be able to reach, and that he would avenge himself on God for destroying their forefathers. Now the multitude were very ready to follow the determination of Nimrod, and to esteem it a piece of cowardice to submit to God. They built a tower, neither sparing any pains, nor being in any degree negligent about the work.” By reason of the many hands employed on the project, the tower “grew very high, sooner than anyone could expect.” Its thickness “was so great, and it was so strongly built, that thereby its great height seemed, upon the view, to be less than it really was.” The tower “was built of burnt brick, cemented together with mortar made of bitumen, that it might not be liable to admit water.” Targum Jonathan (thought to date probably from the second century CE) linked the tower to idolatry, indicating that the builders intended to place an idol for worship at its top.
Whereas the builders of the tower attempted to have it reach the “heavens,” YHWH is represented as coming down to see the city and the tower they had built. He is then quoted as saying, “Look, they are one people, and they all have one language.” The building of the city and the tower was just the beginning of acts that defied God’s purpose for them to spread to various regions of the earth, and other acts of defiance were bound to follow. With the kind of united action that speaking the same language made possible, the people would have been able to carry out any of their God-defying plans. Everything that they devised would have been “possible for them to do.” Therefore, YHWH is represented as determining to go down to confuse the language of the builders so that they would be unable to understand one another and thus be prevented from carrying out corrupt plans as a united body. In Targum Jonathan, God is portrayed as addressing angels to make known to them his purpose. He “said to the seventy angels which stand before him, Come, we shall descend and shall there commingle their language, that a man will not understand the speech of his neighbour.” In the Targum, the “seventy angels” are then linked to “seventy nations.” The confusing of the language led to scattering the people “over the surface of all the earth” or the land, and they stopped building the city. According to the Targum, each one of the seventy nations came to have its own distinctive language. This development was the reason the city became known as “Babel.” (11:5-9) Commenting regarding what occurred at the city, Josephus (Antiquities, I, iv, 3) wrote, “When God saw that [the people] acted so madly, he did not resolve to destroy them utterly, since they had not grown wiser by the destruction of the former sinners.” He brought about confusion among them by causing them to speak a multitude of different languages so that they could no longer understand one another. “The place where they built the tower is now called Babylon, because of the confusion of that language which they readily understood before; for the Hebrews mean by the word Babel, confusion.”
From this point onward, the focus in Genesis chapter 11 is on the descendants of Shem, starting with his son Arpachshad and then continuing consecutively to (Kainan [Cainan]), Shelah, Eber, Peleg, Reu, Serug, Nahor, and Terah. Neither the Hebrew text (the Masoretic Text) nor the Samaritan Pentateuch include Kainan (Cainan), but the Septuagint does in Genesis 11:12, 13. The name Kainan (Cainan) is also found in the genealogy of Jesus Christ at Luke 3:36.
Arpachshad was born two years (twelve years [Josephus, Antiquities, I, vi, 5) after the deluge when his father Shem was 100 years old. The Hebrew text, the Septuagint, and the Samaritan Pentateuch are in agreement about the age of Shem at the time Arpachshad was born and that Shem died at the age of 600 or 500 years after the deluge. Regarding Arpachshad and the other descendants, however, there are differences in the ages at the time of the births of the listed sons and the length of life after this event. The following are the ages of each man at the time his listed son was born: Arpachshad (Arphaxad) to Kainan, 135 (LXX); Arpachshad to Shelah, 35 (Masoretic Text); 135 (Samaritan Pentateuch); Kainan to Shelah (Sala), 130 (LXX); Shelah (Sala) to Eber, 30 (Masoretic Text); 130 (LXX and Samaritan Pentateuch); Eber to Peleg (Phalek), 34 (Masoretic Text); 134 (LXX and Samaritan Pentateuch); Peleg (Phalek) to Reu (Ragau), 30; 130 (LXX and Samaritan Pentateuch); Reu (Ragau) to Serug (Serouch), 32 (Masoretic Text); 132 (LXX and Samaritan Pentateuch); Serug (Serouch) to Nahor (Nachor), 30 (Masoretic Text); 130 (LXX and Samaritan Pentateuch); Nahor (Nachor) to Terah (Thara), 29 (Masoretic Text); 79 (LXX and Samaritan Pentateuch). The following are the ages of each man at his death on the basis of the number of years he lived after becoming father to the listed son: Arpachshad (Arphaxad), 438 [Masoretic Text and Samaritan Pentateuch]; 565 [LXX]; Kainan [Cainan], 460 [LXX]; Shelah [Sala], 433 [Masoretic Text and Samaritan Pentateuch]; 460 [LXX]; Eber, 464 [Masoretic Text]; 504 [LXX]; 404 [Samaritan Pentateuch]; Peleg (Phalek), 239 (Masoretic Text and Samaritan Pentateuch); 339 (LXX); Reu, 239 (Masoretic Text and Samaritan Pentateuch); 339 (LXX); Serug (Serouch), 230 (Masoretic Text and Samaritan Pentateuch); 330 (LXX); Nahor (Nachor), 148 (Masoretic Text and Samaritan Pentateuch); 208 (LXX). (11:10-26)
An ancient explanation for the addition of 100 years to the ages of the men at the time they became fathers to the listed sons is that the years were only a tenth of the twelve-month year. This explanation, however, does not fit the way the year is calculated in connection with the time that Noah and his family spent in the ark during the deluge. It is noteworthy that the men born after the deluge did not live as long as those who lived during the preflood period. For believers in YHWH as the true God and the Creator of the first humans, the explanation for the decline in the life spans is that the generations after the deluge progressively lost the potential for a long life that Adam continued to possess after his sin and which potential his earlier descendants still retained. Finally, at the time Psalm 90 was committed to writing, the typical life span was around 70 years, and an approximate age of 80 came to be attributed to the possession of greater strength.
The ages contained in the works of Josephus (Antiquities, I, vi, 5) do not correspond to those in the extant Hebrew text. For Arpachshad (Arphaxados), Shelah (Selos), Eber (Heberos), and Peleg (Phalegos), Josephus has the same ages as does the Septuagint for the time the men became fathers to the listed sons. Although increasing the ages at the birth of their sons by 100 years for Reu, Serug, and Nahor, the ages do not agree with the Septuagint nor with the Hebrew text when the sum of 100 is subtracted (Reu [Reumos], 130; Serug [Serougos], 132; Nahor [Nachoros], 120). Also unlike the Septuagint, Josephus does not include Kainan (Cainan).
At the age of 70, Terah (Thara) became a father. His family came to include three sons, Abram, Nahor (Nachor), and Haran (Harran). Although listed first, Abram was not the firstborn son of Terah. At the time Terah died at the age of 205, Abram was 75, indicating his father was about 130 years of age at the time of his birth. The reason for mentioning Abram first may have been on account of his prominence as the ancestor of the people of Israel and his outstanding example of devotion to God. (11:26, 27; see 11:32 and 12:4.) According to the Samaritan Pentateuch, however, Terah died at the age of 145. Based on this shorter life span, Abram would have been the firstborn son. In view of the absence of any corroberative support from the Hebrew text, the Septuagint, Targum Jonathan, and Josephus, the rendering of the Samaritan Pentateuch is in doubt. Possibly the age of 145 (instead of 205) was introduced into the text of the Samaritan Pentateuch because Abram was considered to have been the firstborn son of 70-year-old Terah.
Abram’s brother Haran was the father of Lot and preceded his father Terah in death, dying at Ur in Chaldea, the land of his birth. Terah’s surviving two sons, Abram and Nahor, married before Abram’s departure from Ur (commonly identified with Tell el-Muqayyar on the south bank of the Euphrates in southern Iraq). Abram’s wife was Sarai who had remained barren, and Nahor’s wife was his niece Milcah, the daughter of his deceased brother Haran. The siblings of Milcah were her brother Lot and her sister Iscah. Although Abram was the one whom God called upon to leave Ur, the move, as was customary in ancient times, was attributed to the family head Terah. The members of Terah’s family who left Ur included Abram and his wife Sarai, and Abram’s nephew Lot, the son of his deceased brother Haran. According to Josephus (Antiquities, I, vii, 1), Abram adopted Lot because he had no son of his own. The final destination for the family was to be Canaan, but it was not possible to travel westward through the inhospitable desert. Therefore, the family headed north on the usual route from Ur to Canaan. When they reached Haran, a city in northern Mesopotamia, Abram, Sarai, and Lot remained there until Terah died at the age of 205. The Genesis account does not list Nahor and his wife as accompanying his father Terah from Ur, but later in the account he and his family are mentioned as having their home at Haran. (11:28-32; 22:20-23; 24:15, 24, 47) Josephus (Antiquities, I, vi, 5) wrote that Terah had come to hate Chaldea because of his mourning for his son Haran and that the entire family (“they all,” which would have included Nahor and his wife) “removed to Haran of Mesopotamia.”
The Hebrew word for “father” can designate a grandfather or even an earlier ancestor. Targum Jonathan identifies Iscah (11:29) as Sarai. This identification is only possible in the event that Terah was the grandfather of Sarai but the father of Abram. If Terah was her grandfather, she would have been Abram’s niece. This is what Josephus (Antiquities, I, vi, 5) understood the relationship between Abram and Sarai to have been, for he wrote that Abram and his brother Nahor “married their nieces.”
YHWH directed Abram to leave the country where he had settled after leaving the city of Ur and the relatives of his father’s family who were residing in that country and to go to the land he would be shown. His willingness to respond would be richly rewarded. YHWH is quoted as saying, “I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great. And you will be a blessing. And I will bless those blessing you and curse the one cursing you. And by you all the families of the earth will bless themselves.” (12:1-3)
Abram did become a great nation, for he came to have many descendants. He was blessed with much wealth and a long life. Most importantly, he came to be known as YHWH’s “friend.” (Isaiah 41:8) The greatness of his name likely relates to his outstanding reputation as a man with exemplary faith in and devotion to YHWH. To this day, millions of people acknowledge the greatness of the name of Abram (Abraham). Historically, individuals and peoples who aligned themselves with descendants of Abram were blessed, but those who demonstrated themselves to be bitter enemies suffered serious consequences. (Joshua 2:9-13; 6:22, 23, 25; 11:16-20; Ruth 1:16, 17; 4:13-22; Amos 1:3-15; Matthew 1:5) Targum Jonathan includes the example of one who would attempt to curse the descendants of Abraham. “Bileam [Balaam], who will curse them, I will curse, and they will slay him.” Abram would prove to be a source of blessing for other peoples, for through his line of descent the sacred writings that reveal the identity of YHWH, the only true God, and his will and purposes were preserved. Moreover, the promised Messiah, Jesus Christ, came through the line of Abram. In Abram, through his descendant Jesus Christ, all the families living on earth can obtain the greatest blessing possible. When Jesus Christ surrendered his life for the human family, including future generations, people everywhere were provided with the basis for having their sins forgiven and coming to enjoy an approved relationship with God as his beloved children. Moreover, as Paul wrote (Galatians 3:7), the real children of Abraham are such “out of faith” or on the basis of their faith. Therefore, their being blessed “in” Abraham could also mean that people of the nations would share in the blessing by reason of belonging to Abraham. He is their spiritual forefather or ancestor. As his spiritual children, they share in his blessing. (12:2, 3)
The Genesis account does not disclose how YHWH spoke to Abram. It could have been in a dream, a vision, or through his representative angel. Abram, though, understood God to have been the source of the message that was revealed to him, and he responded in faith. It would not have been easy for Abram and his wife to leave family behind and to head for a foreign land about which they knew nothing. At the age of 75, he, with his wife Sarai, his nephew Lot, and the “souls” or servants he had acquired, left Haran in upper Mesopotamia for Canaan. They also took with them all their possessions, which would have included domestic animals. Upon arriving in Canaan, they traveled through the land in which the Canaanites were residing until they reached Shechem by a well-known landmark — the tree of Moreh (the “lofty oak” [LXX]). Shechem has been linked to Tell Balata about 30 miles (48 kilometers) north of Jerusalem and at the east end of the Nablus Valley. (12:4-6)
At Shechem, YHWH (probably the angel of YHWH) appeared to Abram and declared that he would be giving the land to Abram’s “seed” or descendants. In view of the appearance (the nature of which is not revealed), Abram built an altar there to YHWH. Thereafter Abram and all those with him traveled southward, reaching an elevated site to the east of Bethel (identified with Beitin situated about 11 miles [c. 7.5 kilometers] north of Jerusalem and at an elevation of approximately 3,000 feet [over 900 meters] above sea level. There, between Bethel on the west and Ai on the east, Abram set up his tent, built an altar to YHWH, and “called on the name of YHWH.” Apparently he presented an offering on the altar and prayed. The area in the vicinity of Bethel was not where Abram chose to settle. With his wife, his nephew Lot, his servants, and domestic animals, Abram headed southward, arriving in the Negeb, the semi-arid region to the south of the mountainous territory in the land that centuries later came to be assigned to the tribe of Judah. (12:7-9)
At an unspecified time, the people in the land of Canaan experienced a severe famine, and Abram decided to go to Egypt. Before entering Egypt, he said to his wife Sarai that, because she would be desired as a wife on account of her beauty, he feared that he would be killed, whereas she would be preserved alive. Therefore, he entreated her to identify herself as his sister so that he would be spared from death. (12:10-13)
Evidence exists that Abram’s fear was justified. Unas, an ancient Pharaoh, had the following expression attributed to him on an inscription in his pyramid: “Unas is the lord of seed, he who takes the women from their husbands, wherever Unas wants, according to the desire of his heart.” (Unas Pyramid Texts, Utterance 317) An extrabiblical manuscript (The Genesis Apocryphon [1QapGen], thought to date from the late first century BCE or the early first century CE) relates that Abram acted out of fear because of a dream he had. In his dream, he saw a cedar tree and a palm tree. When someone tried to cut down and uproot the cedar, the palm tree spoke up, requesting that the cedar not be cut down, and the plea of the palm tree saved the cedar. Abram interpreted this dream to mean that the Egyptians would seek to kill him but would spare his wife Sarai. Therefore, he asked Sarai to tell them that he was her brother and thereby protect him from being killed.
The account in The Genesis Apocryphon (1QapGen) continues: While in Egypt, Sarai was very careful that the Egyptians would not see her. After five years had passed, three Egyptian princes, including Harkenosh, came to see Abram to inquire about his affairs and about his wife, and they presented him with numerous gifts. At that time, the princes saw Sarai and, upon returning to Pharaoh, described her exceptional beauty and added that no virgins or brides entering the bridal chamber were more beautiful than she. Her beauty was superior to that of all other women. In addition to beauty, she possessed much wisdom. The glowing report about Sarai prompted Pharaoh to send for her and take her away from Abram. Impressed by her beauty, Pharaoh took her as his wife and planned to kill Abram. Sarai intervened, telling him that Abram was her brother and thereby saved him from death.
According to the Genesis account, the Egyptians, including princes of Pharaoh, who saw Sarai did notice that she was very beautiful. The princes praised her to Pharaoh, leading to his taking her into his house to be his wife. As he believed Abram to be Sarai’s brother, Pharaoh treated Abram well on her account. Therefore, Abram came to have sheep, cattle, male and female donkeys, camels, and menservants and maidservants. The mention of camels has often been referred to as an anachronism, but an ancient drawing, a pottery head, and an ointment pot that were found in Egypt suggest that camels appear to have been known in that land from a time before Abram arrived. (12:14-16)
The “great plagues” that affected Pharaoh and his house or the entire royal establishment may have included the inability to conceive or to bring babies to full term. (12:17; compare 20:18) Commenting on the plague that came upon Pharaoh and subsequent developments, Josephus (Antiquities, I, viii, 1) wrote: “God put a stop to his unjust inclinations [to enjoy Sarai] by sending upon him a distemper, and a sedition against his government. And when he inquired of the priests how he might be freed from these calamities, they told him that this his miserable condition was derived from the wrath of God on account of his inclination to abuse the stranger’s wife. He then out of fear asked Sarai who she was …” The Genesis Apocryphon (1QapGen) refers to the cause of the affliction that affected Pharaoh and his household to have been a God-sent pestilential spirit that attacked him and every member of his household. Pharaoh was unable to approach Sarai and had no sexual relations with her during the two years she remained with him. At the end of the two years the distress he and his household experienced intensified. Pharaoh then summoned the sages of Egypt, all the magicians, and all the physicians, desiring that they heal him and the members of his household. They could do nothing, for the pestilential spirit attacked all of them, and they fled. Thereafter Harkenosh, one of Pharaoh’s princes, came to Abram, requesting that he pray for the monarch and lay his hands on him so that he might recover from the affliction. It was on account of Pharaoh’s dream that Harkenosh had been sent to Abram. Lot spoke up, “My uncle Abram cannot pray for the king while his wife Sarai remains with him. So now go and tell the king that he should send [Sarai] … back to her husband. Then he will pray for him, and he will recover.”
Upon coming to know the actual relationship of Abram and Sarai, Pharaoh reproved Abram, asking him why he did not tell him that she was his wife and say that she was his sister. Sarai was Abram’s half sister (or, according to ancient Jewish sources, his niece), the daughter of his father Terah but not the daughter of his mother. (20:12; see the Note section.) Nevertheless, when concealing their relationship as a married couple out of fear, Abram implied that she was available for marriage. Therefore, Pharaoh had taken her to be his wife. Upon coming to know the full truth, he returned Sarai to Abram and instructed him to leave Egypt. Additionally, he gave orders to men in his service to conduct Abram, his wife, and everything he owned out of Egypt, apparently to provide them with safe passage. (12:18-20)
The Genesis account does not censure Abram for concealing that he and Sarai were married but simply reports what he did. Abram was childless at the time, and God’s promise to make him into a great nation could not be fulfilled until he had a son. Faith in that promise, however, was not then strong enough to overcome fear for his life and to trust in God to protect him and Sarai. Nevertheless, God did not abandon Abram, but came to his aid so that Sarai was not violated and that his purpose respecting Abram would be fulfilled. From what happened to Abram and Sarai, God-fearing persons can take comfort. Through God’s providential care for them, they may mercifully be shielded from the consequences of past regrettable actions on account of having yielded to fear instead of relying fully on God.
The Hebrew word for “father” can designate a grandfather or even an earlier ancestor. Targum Jonathan identifies Iscah (Genesis 11:29) as Sarai. This identification is only possible in the event that Terah was the grandfather of Sarai but the father of Abram. If Terah was her grandfather, she would have been Abram’s niece. This is what Josephus (Antiquities, I, vi, 5) understood the relationship between Abram and Sarai to have been, for he wrote that Abram and his brother Nahor “married their nieces.”
After Abram, his wife, and his nephew Lot departed from Egypt with everything they owned, they came into the Negeb, the semi-arid area south of the mountainous region in the territory that later came to be part of the inheritance of the tribe of Judah. At that time, Abram was very wealthy, owning many domestic animals and much silver and gold. After traveling through the Negeb and heading north, Abram and those with him arrived near Bethel (identified with Beitin situated about 11 miles [c. 17.5 kilometers] north of Jerusalem), at the site between Bethel and Ai where they earlier had tented when they arrived from Mesopotamia. It was also there that Abram had erected an altar and called on the name of YHWH. Apparently he presented a sacrifice on the altar and prayed. (13:1-4) The Genesis Apocryphon (1QapGen, thought to date from late in the first century BCE or early in the first century CE) quotes Abram as saying after he had come back to the land of Canaan, “I gave thanks to God for all the riches and favors he had bestowed on me. For he had dealt kindly with me and brought me back in peace into this land.”
Like his uncle Abram, Lot, who according to The Genesis Apocryphon (1QapGen) was by then married to an Egyptian woman, also had flocks, herds, and tents. In view of their abundant possessions and large flocks and herds, it became impossible for them to remain in close proximity with one another. Conflicts arose between the herders of Abram and those of Lot. These disputes likely involved areas for pasturing the animals and the essential sources for watering flocks and herds. Abram seems to have recognized that it was not good for the Canaanites and Perizzites who were residing in the land to witness strife. Therefore, he took the initiative in telling Lot that, because they were “brothers” or closely related, there should not be conflicts between them and between their respective herders. Ample land was available for tending flocks and herds, and Abram gave Lot the choice of the section of land where he preferred to pasture his animals. (13:5-9)
Lot chose the valley of the lower Jordan River, which appears to have included the area around the southern end of the Dead Sea. At the time, this was a well-watered region and was described as being like the “garden of YHWH [paradise of God (LXX)], like the land of Egypt.” The reference to Zoar appears to be to a city south of the Dead Sea, and the Hebrew phrase that literally reads “your coming [to] Zoar” has usually been translated to indicate that the well-watered region extended as far south as Zoar. According to the Septuagint rendering, the desirability of the region ended at that location (“until one came to Zogora [Zoar]”). (13:10, 11)
With his flocks and herds, Lot separated from Abram and headed eastward, where he lived among the cities of the lower Jordan and the Dead Sea area, moving his tent as far as the city of Sodom. Eventually his permanent residence came to be in Sodom itself. According to The Genesis Apocryphon (1QapGen), Lot bought a house in the city. Targum Jonathan (thought to date probably from the second century CE) describes the people of Sodom as having sinned “in their bodies,” sinned “with open nakedness,” shed innocent blood, and engaged in strange worship. The Genesis account refers to them as evil and great sinners against YHWH. (13:12, 13)
While Abram continued to tent in the area of Canaan west of the region where Lot resided, YHWH (likely the angel of YHWH) communicated with him, telling him to look northward, southward, eastward, and westward to see all the land that would be given to him and his “seed” or descendants. The place from which Abram viewed the land likely was the site near Bethel situated at an elevation of about 3,000 feet (900 meters) above sea level. From this elevated site, Abram would have been able to see an extensive area of land. (13:12, 14, 15)
According to the divine promise, the “seed” or descendants of Abram would become as numerous as the dust particles of the land and so beyond his ability to count. Apparently to indicate that he would be given the land through his descendants, Abram was to traverse the length and breadth of the land. (13:16, 17)
The location where Abram moved his tent as his place of residence was by the big trees of Mamre (the “oak of Mamre” [LXX]) at Hebron. This ancient city, situated about 19 miles (c. 30 kilometers) south of Jerusalem and at an elevation of about 3,000 feet (c. 900 meters) above sea level, was built seven years before the Egyptian city of Zoan (Tanis) in the northeastern Delta region. At Hebron, Abram erected an altar to YHWH. (13:18; Numbers 13:22)
Targum Jonathan (thought to date probably from the second century CE) says that the wife of Lot was from Sodom (not from Egypt, as does The Genesis Apocryphon).
Josephus (Antiquities, I, ix) and The Genesis Apocryphon (1QapGen, thought to date from the late first century BCE or the early first century CE) indicate that the servitude of the rulers Bera (Balla or Bara [LXX]; Balas [Josephus]), Birsha (Barsa [LXX]; Balaias [Josephus]), Shinab (Sennaar [LXX]; Synabanes [Josephus]), Shemeber (Symobor [LXX]; Symmoboros [Josephus]) and the king of Bela (Balak or Bala [LXX]; Balenoi [Josephus]; a place also known as Zoar [Segor, LXX]) began when they suffered defeat. For twelve years, these five rulers had served Chedorlaomer, paying him, according to Josephus and 1QapGen, the required tribute. In the thirteenth year, they rebelled, which signified that they refused to pay tribute. It was then, in the fourteenth year, that Chedorlaomer (Chodollogomor [LXX]; Chodolamoros [Josephus]) the king of Elam, with the support of Amraphel (Amarphal [LXX]; Amarapsides [Josephus]) the king of Shinar, Arioch (Ariochos [Josephus]) the king of Ellasar and Tidal (Thargal [LXX]; Thadalos [Josephus]) the king of Goiim (or king of nations [LXX]), undertook punitive war against Bera the king of Sodom, Birsha the king of Gomorrah, Shinab the king of Admah, Shemeber the king of Zeboiim, and the king of Bela. (14:1-5)
With the forces of each of these rulers and his own, Chedorlaomer first engaged in a military campaign that began east of the Jordan River at Ashteroth-karnaim (a site thought to have been located east of the Sea of Galilee). There they triumphed over the Rephaim (the “giants” [LXX]). The invading forces also defeated the Zuzim in Ham (likely a city some distance to the south of Ashteroth-karnaim), the Emim in Shaveh-kiriathaim (a plain near Kiriathaim, east of the Dead Sea), the Horites in the mountainous region of Seir (the region that the descendants of Abram’s [Abraham’s] grandson Esau or Edom many years later inhabited). It appears that the most southerly location that the victorious forces reached was El-paran on the border of the wilderness (possibly at the most easterly section of the “wilderness of Paran” [Genesis 21:21]). The invaders then appear to have headed westward, reaching En-mishpat (also known as Kadesh), a city on the western extremity of the region that later became Edomite territory, and defeated the Amalekites in the region and also the Amorites who were occupying Hazazon-tamar, probably a site near the valley of Siddim. (14:5-7)
Apparently Bera the ruler of Sodom with his force headed the alliance with Birsha, Shinab, Shemeber, and the “king of Bela” with their respective warriors. They assembled in the valley of Siddim, “that [is] the Salt Sea.” This may mean that the valley no longer existed but was covered by the water of the Dead Sea. A number of modern translations make this meaning explicit in their renderings. “These kings joined forces in the valley of Siddim, which is now the Dead Sea.” (REB) The “kings rebelled and came together in Siddim Valley, which is now covered by the southern part of the Dead Sea.” ([CEV] 14:3, 8)
In the ensuing conflict the warriors under the command of Bera the king of Sodom, Birsha the king of Gomorrah, Shinab the king of Admah, Shemeber the king of Zeboiim, and the king of Bela faced the warriors of Chedorlaomer the king of Elam and those of his allies — Tidal the king of Goiim, Amraphel the king of Shinar, and Arioch the king of Ellasar. The defending alliance of five kings fought with the invading alliance of four kings. (14:8, 9)
The invading warriors triumphed, and the kings of Sodom and Gomorrah fled. Their falling into the bitumen pits in the valley of Siddim is to be understood as indicating that their fighters fell into them during their flight from the enemy. Other defending warriors made their escape to the mountainous region. A number of modern translations are more specific in their renderings than is the Hebrew text. “When the troops from Sodom and Gomorrah started running away, some of them fell into the pits. Others escaped to the hill country.” (CEV) “And as the army of the kings of Sodom and Gomorrah fled, some fell into the tar pits, while the rest escaped into the mountains.” (NLT) “When the kings of Sodom and Gomorrah fled, some of their men fell into [the bitumen pits], but the rest made their escape to the hills.” (REB) From Sodom and Gomorrah, the enemy warriors and their four kings seized all the property, probably including flocks and herds, and all the provisions or food supplies. They also captured Lot and plundered his property, which would have included his flocks and herds. Josephus (Antiquities, I, ix) attributed Lot’s capture to his assisting the men of Sodom. (14:10-12)
An escapee of the military campaign made his way to Abram and told him about what had happened. The Genesis Apocryphon (1QapGen) identifies this man as a shepherd whom Abram had given to Lot and who had escaped from captivity. At the time, Abram was tenting by the big trees of Mamre (the “oak of Mamre” [LXX]) the Amorite chieftain. The trees that belonged to Mamre were near Hebron, situated about 19 miles (c. 30 kilometers) south of Jerusalem and at an elevation of about 3,000 feet (c. 900 meters) above sea level. Mamre and his two brothers Eshcol and Aner had a covenant or agreement with Abram, but the terms of this agreement are not included in the Genesis account. Possibly because he was a resident alien, Abram had an agreement with the three men to be able to pasture and water his flocks and herds in the area. (13:18; 14:13)
Both the Antiquities (I, x, 1) of Josephus and The Genesis Apocryphon (1QapGen) mention Abram’s emotional reaction to the news that his “brother” or kinsman Lot had been captured. Josephus wrote that Abram feared for Lot and pitied the people of Sodom, Lot’s friends and neighbors. The Genesis Apocryphon says that Abram “wept” on account of Lot.
With 318 men who had been born in his household, Abram set out to rescue Lot. The Hebrew word chaník, which designates these men, is often rendered “retainers” in modern translations, but its meaning is uncertain. This word does not appear elsewhere in the Hebrew text of the Holy Scriptures. The 318 men must have been trustworthy and doubtless had experience in carrying out collective defensive action to protect Abram’s flocks and herds and the members of his household. From their location near Hebron, Abram and his men, accompanied by Mamre, Eshcol, and Aner (likely with their own dependable strong men) hastily went in pursuit of the enemy warriors, catching up with them in the vicinity of Dan. The distance from Hebron to Dan is about 120 miles (over 190 kilometers). (14:14)
According to Josephus (Antiquities, I, x, 1), Abram launched his attack on the fifth night after the departure with his men. The surprise attack made it impossible for the enemy warriors to arm themselves. Some were asleep and were killed. The others were too intoxicated to fight and fled. Abram and his men pursued the warriors who had fled and, on the second day thereafter, “drove them in a body into Hoba (Hobah).
The biblical account indicates that Abram divided his servants, apparently to enable them to approach the encampment of the enemy from different directions, and made the attack at night. After routing the enemy warriors, Abram and his men pursued the enemy to Hobah, a place north of Damascus and well over 40 miles (over 60 kilometers) northeast of Dan. Abram succeeded in recovering all the property the enemy had seized, freeing his nephew Lot and recovering his property, and liberating the women and other people who had been captured. (14:15, 16)
After Abram returned from defeating Chedorlaomer and the three other “kings,” the king of Sodom traveled to meet Abram at the valley of Shaveh or the valley of the King, apparently a location not far from Salem (or ancient Jerusalem). The king of Sodom requested that Abram give him the “souls” (the people who were subject to him as ruler) and keep all the property he had recovered. Abram refused to retain any part of the property, declaring with a solemn oath to YHWH, the Most High God, the Maker of heaven and earth, that he would not take anything, not a thread nor a sandal strap. He depended solely on the blessing of God, making certain that the king of Sodom would be unable to say that he had made Abram rich. There was to be nothing for Abram aside from what the men who were with him had eaten, and he considered it right for his allies Aner, Eshcol, and Mamre to take their share. (14:17, 21-24)
It was also at the valley of Shaveh that Melchizedek the king of Salem met Abram, bringing with him bread and wine. Besides being king, he was a priest of the Most High God. Melchizedek blessed Abram and said: “Blessed be Abram by God Most High, Maker of heaven and earth, and blessed [or praised] be God Most High who has delivered your enemies into your hand.” Abram then gave Melchizedek a tenth of everything (apparently of the booty taken from the enemy but nothing from the property belonging to the king of Sodom). (14:18-20) Commenting regarding Melchizedek, Josephus (Antiquities, I, x, 2) wrote: His “name signifies the righteous king; and such he was without dispute, insomuch that, on this account,he was made the priest of God … Now this Melchizedek supplied Abram’s army in a hospitable manner and gave them provisions in abundance.” … While they were eating, Melchizedek praised Abram and “blessed God for subduing his enemies under him.” When Abram gave him a tenth part of the spoils, Melchizedek accepted the gift.
At this early period of history, the “kings” were rulers over cities and surrounding areas or over comparatively small geographical regions and not over realms with sizable populations. Josephus, in his Antiquities (I, xi), did not draw a distinction between the realm of Chedorlaomer (Chodorlaomer) and those allied with him but referred to all of them as “Assyrians.”
Regarding verse 14, there is a question about whether the name Dan was associated with the site in the time of Abram. It was not until centuries later that his descendants changed the name of the site called Leshem or Laish to Dan, the name of their ancestor. (Joshua 19:47; Judges 18:7, 27-29) Possibly the name Dan reflects the name of the location at the time the Genesis account came to be in its final form.
Targum Jonathan identifies Melchizedek (14:18) as Shem the son of Noah.
Regarding the application made in the book of Hebrews concerning Melchizedek, see the Commentary section for Hebrews 7:1-28; also see Psalm 110:4 and Hebrews 5:4-10; 6:20.
The Genesis Apocryphon (1QapGen) is specific in identifying the tenth given to Melchizedek (14:20) to have been from all the possessions of the king of Elam (Chedorlaomer) and his allies.
Targum Jonathan indicates that one development Abram feared was that the “brothers” or relatives and the companions of those whom he had killed in the campaign to rescue his nephew Lot would “combine in legions” and come against him. That he must have had a measure of fear appears to be evident from the divine assurance that he was given. He received a vision from YHWH, telling him not to be afraid. He was promised protection, for YHWH would be a shield for him. Additionally, Abram’s reward would be very great. (15:1)
Abram responded in a state of discouragement because he had no offspring and his servant Eliezer of Damascus, one born in his household, would inherit everything. (15:2, 3) YHWH’s word then made it clear to Abram that Eliezer would not be the heir but that he would indeed have a son who would be. (15:4)
YHWH brought Abram outside, apparently outside his tent, and told him to look at the night sky, asking him to number the stars if he could do so. Then Abram received the assurance that his “seed” or descendants would be just as numerous. Abram believed what YHWH had revealed to him, and his faith was reckoned to him as “righteousness,” indicating that he had an approved relationship with YHWH. (15:5, 6)
YHWH is quoted as identifying himself as the One who brought Abram out of Ur of the Chaldeans (a city commonly identified with Tell el-Muqayyar on the south bank of the Euphrates in southern Iraq) to give him the land of Canaan. The giving of the land to Abram’s descendants as their inheritance was so certain that it was as if they received it as their possession from YHWH through Abram. At this point, YHWH made a covenant with Abram respecting the land. For this purpose, Abram was to select three-year-old domestic animals — a heifer, a female goat, and a ram — and a turtledove and a young pigeon. Abram cut all three animals in two and positioned them so that the halves of each animal matched, but he did not cut the birds in two. He probably placed the turtledove on one side and the young pigeon on the opposite side. (15:7-10)
The preparations that Abram made with the sacrificed animals corresponded with the ancient practice for concluding a covenant. After the procedure was carried out, the parties to a covenant or agreement would pass between the parts of the sacrificed victims, indicating thereby that they would merit death, or the same fate as the dead animals, if they did not live up to the terms of the covenant.
When birds of prey descended upon the carcasses, Abram drove them away as he continued to wait for what YHWH would do or would reveal to him. The Septuagint does not refer to Abram’s scaring the birds away but indicates that he sat by the sacrificed animals. “As the sun was going down, Abram fell into a deep sleep,” probably a trance. He then found himself enshrouded in a “fearful darkness,” one that must have made it impossible for him to see anything. That darkness apparently pointed to a coming dark or distressful time for the descendants of Abram, as is apparent from what was next revealed to him. His “seed” or descendants would find themselves in a land not belonging to them, come to be in a state of servitude, and be oppressed “400 years.” (15:11-13)
From the immediate context, one cannot establish how the reference to 400 years is to be understood. Therefore, explanations that have been given over the course of centuries vary. One way to understand the period of 400 years is to reconcile it with the chronology set forth in Exodus 12:40 and Galatians 3:16, 17. The apostle Paul, in his letter to the Galatians, wrote that 430 was the number of years that passed between the time that God made his covenant with Abraham (Abram) and the giving of the law to his descendants at Mount Sinai. When Abram responded in faith, leaving behind his country and relatives, and later entered Canaan, YHWH confirmed the covenant promise that Abram’s “seed” or descendants would be given the land of Canaan. (Genesis 12:7). Abram was then 75 years old. (Genesis 12:4) From that time until the giving of the law a period of 430 years passed, 215 years of which Abram (Abraham) and his descendants lived in the land of Canaan. (Genesis 12:4-6; 21:5; 25:26; 47:9) During the remaining 215 years, Abraham’s grandson Jacob and his descendants resided in Egypt. This agrees with the reading of the Samaritan Pentateuch and the Septuagint that the Israelites lived in “Egypt” and “Canaan” 430 years. (Exodus 12:40; the Masoretic Text, however, omits the mention of Canaan.) With seeming reference to Exodus 12:40, Josephus wrote that the Israelites left Egypt “430 years” after Abraham (Abram) came into Canaan, but “215 years only” after Jacob came to reside in Egypt. (Antiquities, II, xv, 2) In the year the Israelites departed from Egypt, the law covenant was concluded with them.
Based on the age of Abraham at the birth of Isaac, Isaac’s age at the birth of the twins Esau and Jacob, and the age at which Jacob and his family came to live in Egypt, a 400-year residence in that land is ruled out. Moreover, the descendants of Abraham did not suffer any oppression in Egypt for well over five decades after Jacob’s death. Accordingly, the period of oppression from Egyptians apparently is not to be regarded as continuing without letup for 400 years. One way to understand the affliction as coming upon the “seed” of Abram (Abraham) is to start it with what Isaac experienced from Ishmael, the son of his Egyptian mother Hagar. At the weaning of Isaac, Ishmael “played” with him. (Genesis 21:9) This playing apparently took the form of mocking. In Galatians 4:29, the apostle Paul referred to it as persecution. Abraham was 100 years old at the time Isaac was born. If the weaning of Isaac is considered as taking place when Abraham was 105 years old, the period of Egyptian affliction of the “seed” of Abraham had its start then and terminated 400 years after this incident when his descendants departed from Egypt as a free people.
YHWH made known to Abram that he would execute judgment against the nation responsible for oppressing his descendants and that they, with much property, would be able to leave that nation. As for Abram, he would die at a “good old age,” joining his forefathers in the realm of the dead “in peace,” not in a time or as a consequence of trouble or conflict. “In the fourth generation,” the descendants of Abram would come back to the land of Canaan, the land that YHWH had promised to give to Abram and his descendants. It was, however, not then the time for executing punitive judgment against the Amorites, the main inhabitants of Canaan. Their record of sin had not reached its ultimate level. (15:15, 16)
If the reference to the “fourth generation” is to be fitted into the period of about 215 years, it could be reckoned as follows: Jacob’s son Levi, his grandson Kohath, his great-grandson Amram, and his great-great-grandson Aaron. (Exodus 6:16, 18, 20)
While it continued to be dark after the sun had gone down, Abram saw a smoking fire pot, oven, or furnace and a flaming torch pass between the carcasses of the animals he had cut in half. According to the Septuagint, initially a “flame appeared.” What Abram witnessed tangibly confirmed to him that the promises YHWH had made to him would be fulfilled. As this was a unilateral covenant with him, Abram did not pass between the halves of the sacrificed animals. His descendants would be given the land extending from the “river of Egypt” (commonly identified with Wadi el-‛Arish to the southwest of Gaza) to the Euphrates River. The people then living in the land were the Kenites, Kenizzites, Kadmonites, Hittites, Perizzites, Rephaim, Amorites, Canaanites, Girgashites, and Jebusites. The Septuagint includes the Heuites (Hivites). (15:17-21)
For the application that the apostle Paul made of Genesis 15:5, 6, see Romans 4:3-12, 18; Galatians 3:6-9. Also see the comments on the verses from Romans and Galatians in the Commentary section.
The desire to have children can be very strong. In modern times, many couples have gone to great efforts and expense to have offspring. These efforts have included the use of surrogate mothers. Among people of ancient times, the only option available to barren women was to offer their female servants to their husbands so that they might have children through them. In keeping with what had become customary among barren women, Sarai, after a ten-year residence in the land of Canaan, offered her Egyptian maiden Hagar to Abram to obtain offspring by her. She must have had high regard for Hagar to have selected her for this role. Abram cooperated with Sarai in the effort to have offspring, and Hagar conceived. As a result, Hagar appears to have become arrogant, probably seeing herself as the mother of a son who would inherit everything and be the future master of the entire household. She likely regarded herself as occupying an elevated status as the mother of Abram’s child and began to look down upon her barren mistress Sarai. (16:1-4) This was the troublesome outcome from a failure to wait patiently on God to fulfill his promise to make the descendants of Abram very numerous. The first-century Jewish historian Josephus (Antiquities, I, x, 4), however, seemingly did not view the situation in this light but added that Sarai acted “at God’s command.”
Although Sarai had taken the initiative in seeking to have offspring by her maid, she blamed Abram for the contemptuous manner in which Hagar looked down upon her, saying, “The wrong done to me be upon you.” (“I am being wronged by you.” [LXX]) Sarai also called upon YHWH to judge. “May YHWH judge between you and me.” (16:5) Targum Jonathan expands on the expressions of Sarai. “All my affliction is from you [Abram]. Being secure that you would do me justice, I left the land and house of my father and came up with you to a foreign land. Inasmuch as I could not become a mother, I set my handmaid free and gave her to lie in your bosom. She sees that she had conceived, and my honor is despised before her.”
Abram chose not to handle the matter personally but gave Sarai the right to deal with Hagar in the manner she considered “good in [her] eyes” [“pleasing” to her (LXX)]. Sarai then treated Hagar in a harsh way, probably like a female slave with the lowest standing in the household. This prompted Hagar to escape from her. (16:6)
At a spring in the wilderness on the way to Shur (probably to a location in the northwestern part of the Sinai Peninsula) and while Hagar appears to have been making her flight to Egypt, the “angel of YHWH” (his representative angel) appeared to her. In response to his question about from where she had come and where she was going, Hagar replied that she was fleeing from her mistress Sarai. The angel of YHWH directed her to return to her mistress and to submit herself to her. He assured Hagar that her “seed” or offspring would become numerous and that she would give birth to a son whom she was to name Ishmael (“God hears”). This name indicated that YHWH had “heard” or given attention to her distress. Her son would be a “wild donkey of a man” (a country dweller or a rough or rugged man [LXX]), indicating that he and his descendants would be fiercely independent. Ishmael’s “hand” would be against everyone, and everyone’s “hand” would be against him, and he would reside “by the face of all his brothers.” Apparently he, particularly his descendants, repeatedly would be involved in conflicts and feuds stemming from strong tribal loyalties. According to Targum Jonathan, his hands would “take vengeance on his adversaries, and the hands of his adversaries” would reach out “to do him evil.” The Hebrew expression that literally may be translated “by the face” in relation to “his brothers” could be understood to mean that he would dwell alongside his kinsman or that he would be in conflict with his kinsman (“at odds with all his kin” [REB]; “in open hostility against all his relatives” (NLT)). (16:7-12)
Hagar called the “name of YHWH,” the God who had spoken to her, “You are a God of seeing [El-roi].” There is a measure of obscurity in the Hebrew text that provides the reason for the name she applied to YHWH (“Have I even here seen after him who sees me?”). The text of the Septuagint may be translated, “For even face to face I saw the one having appeared to me.” (16:13) Modern translations vary in their renderings, with many choosing to opt for an emended reading of the extant Hebrew text. “‘You Are El-roi,’ by which she meant, ‘Have I not gone on seeing after He saw me!’” (Tanakh [JPS, 1985 edition]) “Have I indeed seen God and still live after that vision?” (REB) “Have I really seen God and lived to tell about it?” (TEV) “Have I truly seen the One who sees me?” (NLT)
Hagar called the “spring” or “well” where she had seen the angel of YHWH “Beer-lahai-roi,” meaning “Well of the Living One who sees me.” This well or spring was located between Kadesh (a city on the western extremity of the region that later became Edomite territory) and Bered. (16:14)
Hagar did return to her mistress and gave birth to a son whom Abram named Ishmael (the name by which the angel of YHWH told Hagar her son should be called). At the time of the boy’s birth, Abram was 86 years old. (16:15, 16)
YHWH, apparently his representative angel, appeared to 99-year-old Abram, encouraging him to “walk” or to conduct himself blamelessly before him. Abram was given the assurance that YHWH’s covenant or agreement with him would for a certainty lead to his having many descendants. Abram dropped to his knees and prostrated himself before the angel, with his face touching the ground. (17:1-3)
Evidently as the direct representative of YHWH, the angel spoke for him, telling Abram that, on the basis of the covenant, he would become the “father of a multitude of nations.” Therefore, his name would be changed from Abram (“exalted father”) to Abraham (“father of a multitude”). YHWH, through the descendants of Abraham, would make him fruitful, resulting in his having nations and kings come forth from him as their ancestor. God’s covenant with Abraham would include his “seed” or his descendants in all future generations. This covenant would continue in effect for limitless time to come. Another part of the covenant was the provision that Abraham and his “seed” or descendants would be given the entire land of Canaan as a lasting possession. YHWH would be the God of Abraham’s descendants, assuring that all the promises associated with the covenant would be fulfilled. (17:3-8)
Abraham and his descendants throughout coming generations were to keep the covenant that YHWH had concluded with them. Every male should have his foreskin removed. Unlike circumcision that is a rite of passage in numerous cultures, circumcision in the case of Abraham’s descendants constituted the sign of the covenant between them and YHWH. Every male of the household, including those purchased from foreigners, were to be circumcised, and all baby boys were to be circumcised on the eighth day after birth. It is noteworthy that, on the eighth day after a normal birth, the baby’s blood-clotting substances (Vitamin K and prothrombin) reach their highest level. For a male not to be circumcised constituted a breach of the covenant with God, and the judgment for failure to be circumcised would mean being “cut off” from the people whom he had chosen as his own. Targum Jonathan includes as an exception the complete unavailability of one who could perform the circumcision. The nature of the “cutting off” is not specified. It may denote severance from God’s people and exclusion from the benefits associated with the covenant between YHWH and his people. (17:9-14)
Abraham’s wife also was to have her name changed. Instead of Sarai, she was to be called Sarah (“princess”). YHWH would bless her, and Abraham would have a son by her. Through Sarah, nations and kings would come into existence. In the fulfillment, there was the nation of Edom and the nation of Israel, and both nations came to have kings. Abraham dropped to his knees and prostrated himself, with his face touching the ground. He laughed “in his heart” or within himself, likely out of astonishment. The prospect was far beyond the ordinary, for Abraham was 100 years old and his wife Sarah was 90. (17:15-17)
In view of the promise of a son by Sarah, Abraham appears to have been concerned about what this would mean for Ishmael, the son whom he must have greatly loved. He then made his prayerful appeal, “O that Ishmael might live before you [literally, before your face].” Again Abraham was told that Sarah would bear him a son whom he was to call Isaac (“laughter”). Not with Ishmael, but with this son to be born would YHWH establish his covenant and also with the “seed” or descendants of this son. YHWH had “heard” or given attention to Abraham’s appeal respecting Ishmael. He would be blessed and his descendants would become numerous and form a great nation. Ishmael would become the father of twelve princes or chieftains. According to Genesis 25:13-15 and 1 Chronicles 1:29-31, the twelve sons were Nebaioth, Kedar, Adbeel, Mibsam, Mishma, Dumah, Massa, Hadad, Tema, Jetur, Naphish, and Kedemah. (17:18-20)
With Isaac, the son to whom Sarah would give birth in the following year, YHWH would establish his covenant, the covenant that had originally been concluded with Abraham. After he had completed speaking to Abraham by means of his representative angel, God is said to have “gone up.” This indicated that the angel, the direct representative of God, ascended and disappeared from Abraham’s sight. (17:21, 22)
Ninety-nine-year-old Abraham did not delay in circumcising all the males of his household, including the purchased male servants and the male offspring of his servants. On the same day as he circumcised his thirteen-year-old son Ishmael, Abraham also was circumcised, likely by one of his servants. (17:23-27)
Abraham’s tent was located by the big trees of Mamre (the “oak of Mamre” [LXX]) at Hebron, situated about 19 miles (c. 30 kilometers) south of Jerusalem and at an elevation of about 3,000 feet (c. 900 meters) above sea level. During the hottest part of the day, people usually did not work nor travel. Yet it was then, while Abraham sat at the entrance of his tent, that YHWH (his representative angel) appeared to him. As Abraham looked up, he saw three men coming toward him and he quickly left his tent to meet them, respectfully bowing down before them. He requested that they not pass him by but consent to have their feet washed and to rest under the nearby tree. Meanwhile he would get a “little bread” for them to “refresh [their] heart” or to provide them with food to renew their strength. In view of their having traveled during the heat of the day, Abraham must have concluded that it was urgent for them to carry out their purpose. Therefore, he did not offer lodging to them but told them that they could be on their way after they had eaten the food he would provide. (8:1-5)
Abraham hastened to the tent of Sarah, requesting that she hurry to make cakes or loaves from “three seahs” (c. 20 dry quarts; c. 22 liters) of flour. Like her husband, Sarah would have been eager to extend hospitality and would have been pleased to carry out his request. Abraham hurried to his herd and selected a choice calf, which he gave to a servant who quickly followed through on the necessary preparations to have the meat ready to be served. After preparations for the meal were completed, Abraham took curds, milk, and the roasted meat and set it before the three men. While they ate, he stood by them under the tree, ready to serve them. (18:6-8) The Jewish historian Josephus appears not to have believed that angels could eat food, for he wrote (Antiquities, I, xi, 2) that “they made a show of eating.”
In response to the question where Sarah was, Abraham replied, “Look, in the tent.” Apparently YHWH’s angel then told him that, upon his return in the following year, Sarah would have a son. From her location at the tent entrance behind the angel, Sarah had listened to his words. According to Targum Jonathan, Ishmael stood behind her. That she would give birth to a son seemed impossible to Sarah. Both she and her husband were old, and she had ceased to have her periods. Therefore, Sarah laughed to herself and said, “After I have grown old, will I [enjoy] the pleasure [of having a son], and my lord [being] old [besides]?” Sarah’s referring to Abraham as her “lord” when speaking to herself indicates that it was customary for her to show the highest regard for him. (18:9-12; 1 Peter 3:6)
YHWH’s angel was fully aware that Sarah had laughed to herself and, therefore, asked why she had done so regarding the prospect of bearing a child in her old age. Focusing on developments that were beyond human possibility, the angel continued, “Is anything too hard for YHWH?” He then repeated the promise that Sarah would have a son at the time of his return. Out of fear, Sarah denied having laughed, but the angel again stated that she did so. (18:13-15) The Jerusalem Targum quotes the angel as saying, “Fear not; yet in truth you did laugh.”
The three angels departed, looking down in the direction of the city of Sodom, and Abraham accompanied them. At the time, he did not know the reason the angels were heading for Sodom. The angel of YHWH is represented as asking himself whether the matter should continue to be concealed from Abraham. Continuing to hide from Abraham what was about to happen did not harmonize with YHWH’s purpose regarding him. Abraham was to have many descendants that would become a great nation, and “in him all the nations of the earth” would “bless themselves.” He was entrusted with the responsibility to instruct his sons and his entire household to observe the “way of YHWH” or the course of life that was upright and just. By pursuing that “way,” the descendants of Abraham would experience the blessings inherit in the divine promise that had been made to him. (18:16-19)
At this point, YHWH (his representative angel) revealed that there had been a great outcry against the inhabitants of Sodom and Gomorrah on account of their very grave sin. In view of this outcry, YHWH determined to “go down” to investigate the basis for it. (18:20, 21)
Whereas two angels then headed for Sodom, YHWH (the third angel or YHWH’s direct representative) remained with Abraham. Believing in YHWH’s justice, Abraham asked, “Will you indeed destroy the righteous and the wicked?” He then questioned whether YHWH would destroy the city if there were fifty righteous inhabitants and expressed his confidence that it would be inconceivable for him, as the “judge of all the earth,” to slay the righteous along with the wicked. Abraham was assured that Sodom would be spared for the sake of fifty righteous persons. Humbly referring to himself as being but “dust and ashes” and therefore too lowly even to say more, Abraham asked whether Sodom would be spared if there were forty-five righteous ones or just forty righteous ones. He pleaded that God not be angry with him for continuing to speak. Abraham asked whether Sodom would be spared if there were thirty righteous ones or just twenty righteous ones. Again he pleaded for God not to be angry with him and asked whether the city would be spared if there were ten righteous ones. In each case, the answer was that Sodom would be spared for the sake of the righteous ones found in the city. Abraham stopped asking after he had limited the number to ten righteous persons. (18:22-32)
After YHWH (his representative angel) finished speaking with Abraham, he departed. Abraham then returned to his own place. (18:33)
According to Targum Jonathan and the Jerusalem Targum, there were three angels because a ministering angel could only be sent for one purpose. One of the angels was to inform Abraham that he would have a son by Sarah, the other angel was to recue Lot, and the third angel was to destroy Sodom, Gomorrah, Admah, and Zeboiim.
Josephus wrote (Antiquities, I, xi, 2) that, after Sarah laughed, the three men identified themselves as angels and that one of them had been sent to inform Abraham and Sarah about the child and the other two regarding the overthrow of Sodom.
In his letter to the Galatians (3:18), the apostle Paul applied the words found in Genesis 12:3 and 18:18. For people of the nations to be blessed “in Abraham” would require that they come to be persons whom God views as approved, righteous, or upright. Being holy or pure, the Almighty could never bestow his favor on those who are unclean or defiled in his sight. On the basis of their faith in Abraham’s descendant Jesus Christ and the forgiveness of sins made possible through his sacrificial death, people of the nations are reckoned as righteous. As Paul wrote (Galatians 3:7), the real children of Abraham are such “out of faith” or on the basis of their faith. Therefore, besides being blessed “in” Abraham through his descendant Jesus Christ, people of the nations could also be said to be blessed “in” Abraham because of belonging to him. He is their spiritual forefather or ancestor. As his spiritual children, they share in his blessing.
In verse 19, the phrase “for I have known him” appears to indicate that YHWH had a relationship with Abraham as his friend. The Septuagint rendering conveys a different thought. It indicates that God knew that Abraham would instruct his sons and his household and that they would do what was right and just.
When the two angels reached Sodom in the evening, Lot was sitting at the city gate. Anciently, the open area bordering the city gate was the place where city elders handled legal cases, individuals transacted business, and people gathered to hear the latest news. The biblical account provides no information about the reason Lot was then at the city gate. Perhaps he had attained a position of dignity because of what his uncle Abraham had done in rescuing the people of Sodom along with him from their military captors. If this was the case, the fact that Lot sat at the city gate may indicate that he did so as a man of some prominence. (19:1)
Respectfully, Lot stood up to meet the two strangers and, as was customary in that culture, dropped to his knees and bowed low, with his face touching the ground. He addressed the strangers as “my lords” and extended hospitality to them, offering to wash their feet and to have them stay in his house for the night. They initially declined his offer, telling him that they would spend the night on the street. Lot, however, strongly insisted that they come to his home. He arranged a meal for them, which included unleavened bread. The unleavened bread may have been the preferable choice because of requiring less time to prepare. (19:1-3)
Before the two angels could retire for the night, both young and old men of Sodom began to surround Lot’s house. According to Josephus (Antiquities, I, xi, 3), the men of Sodom had noticed that the two strangers had extraordinarily beautiful countenances and they resolved to have their way with them “by force and violence.” The men of Sodom demanded that Lot bring out the two strangers to them so that they might come to “know” them or to assault them sexually. Lot went out to them, shut the door of his house behind himself, and pleaded with them not to act wickedly. To the men of Sodom, he even offered his two daughters who had never had sexual intercourse with a man. Desperately, Lot wanted to do everything he possibly could to shield the strangers who had come under the shelter of his home. In the then-existing culture, the duty to protect strangers to whom hospitality had been extended took precedence over the obligation to preserve the honor of women. (19:4-8)
The men of Sodom responded angrily, telling him to stand back, accusing him of playing the judge although he was but an alien, and threatening to do worse to him than they intended to do to the two strangers. They pressed against Lot and were at the point of breaking down the door of his house. The two angels pulled Lot into the safety of the house, shut the door, and struck the men of Sodom, both young and old, with blindness and thus prevented them from finding the door in order to force themselves into the house. This blindness may have been a kind of mental blindness that totally disoriented the men, for nothing is said in the account to suggest that they were terrified about having lost their ability to see anything. (19:9-11)
The angels asked Lot whether he had anyone else in the city (sons-in-law, sons, daughters, or anyone else) and told him to bring them out of the city. YHWH had taken note of the great outcry against Sodom and had sent the two angels to destroy the place. Lot left the house to inform his future sons-in-law who were to marry his daughters to leave the city because YHWH was about to destroy it. The future sons-in-law did not take Lot seriously but regarded him as if he were jesting. According to the Septuagint rendering, the sons-in-law had already married Lot’s daughters. (19:12-14)
At the break of dawn, the angels urged Lot to take his wife and his two daughters out of the city lest he perish, sharing in the fate of the people of Sodom. As he did not act promptly, the angels took hold of him, his wife, and the two daughters and, in expression of YHWH’s compassion for them, took them out of Sodom. The angels admonished them to flee for their “souls” or their lives. Lest they perish, they were not to look behind nor to stand still in any part of the region but to flee to the mountainous terrain. Lot feared that he would be unable to make it to the mountainous area. Perhaps he had become a fat man and was afraid that his heart would give out during the course of the flight. Therefore, he pleaded to be able to escape to a nearby little town. Lot was granted this favor, being assured that this small town would not be destroyed. Nevertheless, he was instructed to hurry, for nothing could be done until he had arrived safely in the little town. This town then came to be called “Zoar” (“littleness”). (19:15-22) Josephus (Antiquities, I, xi, 4) wrote that, in his day, the place was still called Zoar, “for that is the word which the Hebrews use for a small thing.”
When Lot arrived at Zoar, the risen sun was shining over the entire land. YHWH then caused fire and sulfur to rain down upon Sodom and Gomorrah. Josephus (Antiquities, I, xi, 4; Wars, IV, viii. 4) attributed the fire to a lightning strike. Sodom, Gomorrah, Admah, and Zeboiim and all their inhabitants were destroyed. (Deuteronomy 29:22) The entire region became a desolate area without any greenery. Lot’s wife turned to look behind Lot, and she became a pillar of salt. (19:23-26) Commenting regarding this, Josephus (Antiquities, I, xi, 4) wrote that Lot’s wife continually turned back to view the city, being too inquisitive about what would happen to it. He also claimed that he had seen the pillar and then said, “It remains at this day.” The Genesis Apocryphon (1QapGen, thought to date from the late first century BCE or the early first century CE) identifies Lot’s wife as an Egyptian, but Targum Jonathan (thought to date probably from the second century CE) indicates that she was from Sodom. This Targum says that she looked after the angel to see what would be the end of her father’s house.
Early in the morning of the day that Lot and his daughters escaped from Sodom, Abraham went to the place where he had spoken to YHWH’s angel. From this vantage point, he looked down toward Sodom and Gomorrah and saw smoke like that from a furnace rising from the entire area. At the time for the destruction of the cities, God remembered Abraham’s concern for upright persons living there and opened the way for Lot to escape. (19:27-29)
Although Lot had originally been told to flee to the mountainous region, he had pleaded to be able to make his escape to the little town that came to be called “Zoar.” This did not work out well for him, probably because the inhabitants looked upon him and his daughters superstitiously as cursed escapees from Sodom. Out of fear, he then left Zoar with his daughters and headed for the mountainous area. There Lot and his daughters made their home in a cave. (19:30)
The daughters feared that no one would marry them, leaving their father without any offspring to continue the family line. Therefore, the older daughter came up with a plan to which she apparently knew Lot would not willingly consent. She suggested to her younger sister that they give their father wine to drink and then to lie down with him so that they might become pregnant and bear his children. They got their father drunk, and the older sister lay down with him. In his intoxicated state, he did not know or have any recollection when she lay down with him and when she arose and left. The next day the older sister asked the younger sister also to lie down with their father. That night the daughters gave their father wine to drink, and the younger daughter lay down with him. As was the case with the older sister, Lot did not know when his younger daughter lay down with him and when she got up to leave. He apparently had no recollection about what had happened. Both daughters became pregnant. The older daughter named her son Moab who became the ancestor of the Moabites, and the younger daughter named her son Ben-ammi who became the ancestor of the Ammonites. In his Antiquities (I, xi, 5), Josephus wrote that the name Moab referred to one who was derived from the father and that the name Ammon denoted one derived from a kinsman. The Septuagint indicates that “Moab” means “from my father,” and Ammon means “son of my kindred.” (19:31-38)
In verse 20, Lot is quoted as referring to the nearby town as a “little one,” and this became the basis for its name “Zoar.”
What Lot’s daughters did must be considered as a desperate act to preserve the family line. The older daughter perceived this to be the only option available to them. It was not a desire for an incestuous relationship with the father. Nothing in the account suggests that the daughters ever again had sexual relations with their father.
Abraham departed with his entire household from the area in the vicinity of Hebron (13:18; 18:1) and headed southward to the Negeb, a semi-arid region. There he tented between Kadesh (a city on the western extremity of the region that later became Edomite territory) and Shur (probably a location in the northwestern part of the Sinai Peninsula). Abraham then moved to the vicinity of Gerar (a site not far from Gaza [10:19]). As he had not resided in this region previously and did not know what he might expect from the people there, he, out of fear for his safety, identified his beautiful wife Sarah as his “sister.” Therefore, Abimelech sent for Sarah, intending to make her his wife. (20:2)
Years earlier, if it had not been for YHWH’s intervention, Pharaoh would have violated Sarah because Abraham had led him to believe that she was his sister. (12:12-19) This past experience, coupled with YHWH’s promise that Sarah would have a son (18:10), did not restrain him from dissembling out of fear. Although he was a man of outstanding faith, Abraham apparently still had weaknesses when it came to handling his personal affairs. Kindly and mercifully, YHWH dealt with him accordingly. Again God intervened, revealing to the king of Gerar (Abimelech) in a dream that Sarah was Abraham’s wife and warning him that he would be a dead man if he did not return Sarah. In response to the revelation, Abimelech asked whether God would slay an innocent people, for he had not violated Sarah and had only taken her because Abraham had told him that she was his sister and because she also had said that he was her brother. YHWH had intervened by not permitting Abimelech to have sexual relations with Sarah. Although Abimelech was upright in his actions based on what both Abraham and Sarah had said, he had unintentionally deprived a husband of his wife, and this was an unintentional wrong that needed to be rectified. Therefore, Abimelech’s failure to return Sarah to Abraham would have merited death, especially since Abraham was a “prophet” of YHWH. As a “prophet,” Abraham enjoyed a special relationship with YHWH as a man to whom his purpose and future developments regarding him and his “seed” or descendants had been made known. In his role as a prophet, Abraham had the responsibility to teach his children and his entire household, including many servants, to observe the “way of YHWH” or the course that was upright and just. (18:19) In view of his special relationship to YHWH, Abraham could also pray for Abimlelech that he would live and experience no punishment for his unintentional transgression. (20:3-7)
After Abimelech got up early in the morning, he assembled his servants and told them what God had made known to him, causing them to be filled with great fear. Abimelech then summoned Abraham, reproving him for what he had done to him and his subjects. “What have you done to us, and how have I sinned against you that you have brought on me and my kingdom a great sin? Things that should not be done you have done to me.” In his Antiquities (I, xii, 1), Josephus omits any expressions of reproof but represents Abimelech as assuring Abraham that Sarah’s chastity had been preserved and that, by God’s providence, he had received his wife again. In response to Abimelech, Abraham told him that he thought he could have been killed on account of his wife if “no fear of God” existed in the place. The absence of any “fear of God” would have meant that the people did not consider themselves accountable to a supreme deity and were a law to themselves. Therefore, they could not be trusted to do what was right and just. Endeavoring to absolve himself of having lied, Abraham said of Sarah, “She is indeed my sister, the daughter of my father but not the daughter of my mother.” Ancient Jewish sources indicate that Sarah was the granddaughter of Abraham’s father Terah. Josephus (Antiquities, I, xii, 1) wrote, “Abraham told [Abimelech] that his pretense of kindred to his wife was no lie, because she was his brother’s daughter, and that he did not think himself safe in his travels abroad without this sort of dissimulation.” Targum Jonathan quotes Abraham as saying, “In truth she is my sister, the daughter of my father's brother, but not of the kindred of my mother; and she became my wife.” Abraham then explained that when he, at God’s direction, began to wander away from his father’s house or in other lands, he had requested that his wife, in every place, kindly identify him as her brother. (20:8-13)
Thereafter Abimelech returned Sarah to Abraham, gave him sheep, cattle, and male and female slaves, and extended to him the offer to dwell in his land wherever he pleased (more literally, in what was good in his eyes). To Sarah, Abimlelech said, “Look, I have given a thousand silver pieces to your brother. Look, it is a covering for your eyes to all who are with you and before everyone, and you are adjudged” innocent (or cleared of any blot on your chastity as Abraham’s wife). The Jerusalem Targum represents Abimelech as saying to Sarah that the “silver is given to you as a present, because you were hidden from the eyes of Abraham your husband one night.” According to the Septuagint, Abimelech said, “Look, I have given your brother a thousand didrachmas. These will be to you for the honor of your face [or your person] and all those with you [or all your female servants]; and [in] everything be truthful.” Abraham then prayed for Abimelech; and Abimelech’s wife and female servants were healed so as to be able to have children. On account of Sarah, YHWH had shut the wombs of all the women in Abimelech’s household. (20:14-18)
The designation “Abimelech,” meaning “my father [is] king,” may have been a personal name. More likely, however, it was an official title, for a number of rulers are so designated. (20:2)
The Hebrew word for “father” can designate a grandfather or even an earlier ancestor. Targum Jonathan identifies Iscah (11:29) as Sarai. This identification is only possible in the event that Terah was the grandfather of Sarai but the father of Abram. If Terah was her grandfather, she would have been Abraham’s niece. This is what Josephus (Antiquities, I, vi, 5) understood the relationship between Abram and Sarai to have been, for he wrote that Abram and his brother Nahor “married their nieces.”
In the Septuagint, the thousand silver pieces (20:16) are called a “thousand didrachmas.” In the first century CE, the Jews paid an annual temple tax of a didrachma or two drachmas. (Matthew 17:24) The Romans officially evaluated the silver drachma as three fourths of a denarius. The Septuagint also includes a reference to a “thousand didrachmas” in verse 14 and could there be understood to apply to the value of all the sheep, calves, and male and female slaves Abimelech gave to Abraham.
YHWH’s “visiting” Sarah refers to his turning attention to her to fulfill his previously spoken word that she would give birth to a son. Sarah did conceive and bear a son to her aged husband, 100-year-old Abraham. The boy’s father called him Isaac, meaning “laughter.” As God had commanded, Abraham circumcised his son on the eighth day. (21:1-5)
Overjoyed about having given birth to a son, Sarah said, “God has prepared [literally, made] laughter for me. Everyone hearing [about it] will laugh with me” (“rejoice with me” LXX]). “Who could have said to Abraham that Sarah would nurse sons?” (“Who will report to Abraam that Saara is nursing a child?” [LXX]) “Yet I have borne a son [to him] in his old age.” No one could have imagined that Sarah would be so blessed as to have a son when she was well past childbearing age. (21:6, 7)
When the time came for Isaac to be weaned, Abraham prepared a big feast to mark this joyous occasion. At that time, Sarah noticed Ishmael, the son whom the Egyptian Hagar had borne to Abraham, “playing” with or making sport of Isaac. In his letter to the Galatians (4:29), the apostle Paul referred to what Ishmael did with Isaac as “persecuting” him. Fearing for the future of Isaac, Sarah requested that Abraham dismiss Hagar and her son from the household, insisting that the son of the slave woman Hagar was not to be an heir with Isaac. (21:8-10) Referring to the previous feelings of Sarah toward Ishmael, Josephus (Antiquities, I, xii, 3) wrote, “She at first loved Ishmael … with an affection not inferior to that of her own son.” After Sarah had borne Isaac, however, she was unwilling for Ishmael to be brought up with him. She felt that Ishmael was too old for Isaac and feared that, after Abraham’s death, Ishmael would be able to inflict injuries on Isaac.
Sarah’s request to expel Hagar and Ishmael from the household proved to be most displeasing in the eyes of Abraham, apparently because he was very attached to his son Ishmael. According to Josephus (Antiquities, I, xii, 3), Abraham considered it to be the “greatest barbarity” to dismiss the youngster and a woman without any means of support. God’s purpose respecting Isaac, however, was better served without having Ishmael present in the household. Therefore, he directed that Abraham listen to Sarah and follow through on sending Hagar and Ishmael away. In view of Ishmael’s being Abraham’s “seed” or offspring, God promised that he would make Ishmael into a great nation. This promise assured that Ishmael would survive and become the forefather of many descendants. (21:12, 13)
Early in the next morning, Abraham dismissed Hagar and Ishmael, giving her bread and a leather bag filled with water. She wandered in the wilderness of Beer-sheba (a place at the edge of the desert south of the mountainous region of what later became a part of the territory of the tribe of Judah). Eventually the water supply was exhausted and Ishmael’s strength diminished to such an extent that Hagar had to support him as they walked. Apparently when her own strength gave out, she withdrew her support and dropped her teenage son (17:25) under the shade of a bush. Hagar then walked away, seated herself at a distance of bowshot from Ishmael, and began to weep. By positioning herself a bowshot away from her son (or what would have been the usual distance required for an arrow to reach its target), Hagar wanted to avoid seeing her son’s agonizing death throws. Her extreme distress appears to have led to beclouding her vision so that she was unable to see a nearby well, but an angel of God came to her aid. “From heaven” or the sky above her, Hagar heard the angel’s voice asking her as to what troubled her and telling her not to fear, for God had heard the voice of her son. The angel instructed her to raise up her son, taking fast hold of him with her hand, and assured her that he would be made into a “great nation” or come to have many descendants. (21:14-18)
Hagar’s confused state ended, and she saw a well from which she filled her leather bag with water and gave her son a drink. The opening of her eyes to see the well is attributed to God. According to Josephus (Antiquities, I, xii, 3), Hagar thereafter met some shepherds who came to her aid. From that time onward, God was with Ishmael as he matured and continued to live with his mother in the wilderness of Paran (probably in the northern part of the Sinai Peninsula). He became an expert archer and so, as a skillful hunter, would have been able to procure sufficient food. In time, Hagar obtained an Egyptian wife for her son. (21:19-21) Targum Jonathan says that Ishmael initially married Adisha whom he later put away, and that the wife Hagar took for him from the land of Mizraim (Egypt) was named Phatima.
Meanwhile Abraham and his household continued to prosper. That household must have been impressively large, consisting of hundreds of servants. (Genesis 14:14) Apparently for this reason, Abimelech the king of Gerar (not far from the city of Gaza [Genesis 10:19]) considered it advisable to conclude a covenant with Abraham to assure his future security. With the commander of his army Phicol (Phikol or Phichol [LXX]), Abimelech came to where Abraham was tenting. Regarding Abraham, he acknowledged, “God is with you in everything you do.” He then requested that Abraham swear to him by God that he would “not deal falsely” with (“not wrong” or “injure” [LXX]) him nor his posterity (“nor [his] name” [LXX adds]) and that he would act toward him and his land as he had acted with “loyalty” (“righteousness” or “justice” [LXX]) toward him. Although Abraham agreed to swear to this, he raised the issue about the well that he had dug but which the servants of Abimelech had seized. After Abimelech responded that he did not know who was responsible for this deed and that this was the first time he had heard about it, Abraham took sheep and cattle and gave them to Abimelech, and the two men concluded a covenant. (21:22-27)
Additionally, Abraham set apart seven ewe lambs. When Abimelech asked why he had set them apart, Abraham replied that the animals were for him to take and would serve as a testimony that he had dug the well which the servants of Abimelech had seized. Abraham then gave the name Beer-sheba to the site where he and Abimelech had sworn an oath. This name means “well of an oath” or “well of seven,” recalling either the oath or the seven ewe lambs that were given to Abimelech. After the covenant had been concluded, Abimelech and Phicol returned to their land, the “land of the Philistines.” (21:28-32)
At Beer-sheba, Abraham planted a tamarisk tree. Unlike many other trees, the tamarisk thrives in areas with limited annual rainfall. Also at Beer-sheba, Abraham “called on the name of YHWH, the eternal God.” He doubtless erected an altar there, offered sacrifices, and prayed. For a considerable time (literally, “many days”), Abraham continued to reside in the “land of the Philistines.” (21:33, 34)
From the time of Isaac’s birth, the Jews (according to Josephus [Antiquities, I, xii, 2]) circumcise their sons on the eighth day. The Arabians, however, do so “after the thirteenth year,” for it was at that age that Ishmael, “the founder of their nation,” was circumcised.
The dismissal of Ishmael from the household of Abraham did not sever all family ties. At the burial of Abraham 75 years after Isaac’s birth, Ishmael was present, indicating that contact with the family of Abraham had continued. (Genesis 25:7-9)
In verse 15, the reference to Ishmael as a “child” is not to be understood to mean that he is being represented as a young child whom his mother had carried. The Hebrew word yéled can designate a “young man” (Genesis 4:23) and, therefore, could be used regarding the teenager Ishmael.
According to the Septuagint (21:22, 32), Ochozath and Phikol (Phicol) accompanied Abimelech. Ochozath was his nymphagogós (literally, “leader of the bride”) and may here designate a “trusted companion.”
For this early period in history, no extant archaeological evidence links the Philistines (21:32, 34) to the region in the proximity of Gaza. This has given rise to the view that the designation “Philistines” was appropriated for the earlier inhabitants whose ethnicity was either not known or not well-known at the time the Genesis account came to be in its final form.
Sometime after having concluded a covenant with Abimelech, Abraham faced the greatest test of his faith. God asked him to take his dearly beloved son Isaac to the “land of Moriah” (the “high land” [LXX]) and there to offer him as a sacrifice on one of the mountains that would be pointed out to him. (22:1, 2) According to Josephus (Antiquities, I, xiii, 2), Isaac was twenty-five years old, but Targum Jonathan indicates that he was in the thirty-seventh year of his life.
Abraham rose early in the morning on the next day, departing with Isaac and two young men, apparently his servants. In preparation for the sacrifice, he had cut enough wood for the burnt offering and loaded it on his donkey, likely along with supplies of food and water for the trip. On the third day after setting out, Abraham, at a distance, saw the place about which God had told him. (22:3, 4) The actual location in the “land of Moriah” is not revealed in the account, but 2 Chronicles 3:1 indicates that it was the mountain in Jerusalem where the temple was built during the reign of King Solomon. It may have been some fifty miles (c. 80 kilometers) from a location in the “land of the Philistines” that Abraham, Isaac, and the two young men walked to reach the “land of Moriah.” This could have taken them two days, making it possible for Abraham, on the “third day” after setting out, to see the mountainous region of which a part later came to be included in the city of Jerusalem.
Abraham instructed the two young men to stay with the donkey while he and Isaac would be going to the designated site to worship God and then to return. Abraham had Isaac carry the wood for the burnt offering, whereas he carried the knife and the “fire.” It was not possible to start fires easily, and so it was preferable to be able to transfer fire from one source to another. Abraham must have carried the means to start a fire and to set the wood on fire for the burnt offering. When Isaac asked about the sheep for the burnt offering, Abraham replied, “God himself will provide the lamb for a burnt offering, my son.” (22:5-8)
At the location about which God had told him to sacrifice Isaac, Abraham erected an altar, arranged the wood thereon, and had his son positioned in a bound state on top of the wood. As Abraham was about the slay his son, the angel of YHWH called out to him, telling him not to lay his hand on him. The angel continued to speak as the representative of YHWH, “Now I know that you fear God as you have not withheld your son, your only one, from me.” The reference to knowing that Abraham feared God is to be understood as meaning that his reverential regard for God had been undeniably demonstrated as existing through an act of unqualified obedience. Although Ishmael was a son of Abraham, Isaac was his only or unique son by his wife Sarah. (22:9-12)
Abraham then did see an acceptable sacrifice — a ram that was “caught in a thicket by its horns.” He placed this ram on the altar as a burnt offering. Abraham recognized YHWH as the one who had provided the suitable sacrifice and, therefore, named the place “YHWH-jireh,” meaning “YHWH will see [or provide].” “To this day,” or down to the time when the Genesis account came to be in its final written form, it continued to be said, “On the mountain, YHWH will see [or provide].” (22:13, 14)
For a second time, YHWH’s angel called out to Abraham and, with a solemn oath, spoke as the direct representative of YHWH, “Because you have done this and have not withheld your son, your only one, I indeed will bless you and will multiply your seed [or descendants] like the stars of the heavens and like the [grains of] sand on the seashore, and your seed will possess the gate [cities (LXX)] of his enemies.” To possess the gate signified to have control of the city, indicating that the descendants of Abraham would not become subservient to foreign powers. This proved to be the case as long as they were obedient to YHWH. “All the nations of the earth” were to bless themselves by the “seed” of Abraham because he had obeyed YHWH’s voice. In the fulfillment, the “seed” by whom people of the nations were to bless themselves is the Messiah or Christ, Jesus the unique Son of God. Persons who put faith in him and his sacrifice of himself for them are granted forgiveness of their sins and thus gain an approved relationship with God as his beloved children. (22:15-18)
Abraham, Isaac, and the two young men who had accompanied them returned to Beer-sheba and continued to reside there. (22:19) Josephus (Antiquities, I, xiii, 4) added that Abraham and Isaac “embraced one another.” They “returned to Sarah and lived happily together, God affording them his aid in everything they desired.” Targum Jonathan contradicts the comments of Josephus and contains words that do not find any support in the Genesis account. This Targum says that Satan told Sarah (when 127 years old) that Abraham had killed Isaac (in the thirty-seventh year of his life), and she then arose, cried out, was strangled, and died from agony.
It was after Abraham and Isaac returned to Beer-sheba that news reached Abraham about his relatives in Haran. Milcah, the wife of Abraham’s brother Nahor, had borne eight sons — Uz the firstborn, Buz his brother, Kemuel the father of Aram (the “Syrians” [LXX]), Chesed, Hazo, Pildash, Jidlaph, and Bethuel. Bethuel became the father of Rebekah, the future wife of Isaac. Nahor’s concubine Reumah had four sons — Tebah, Gaham, Tahash, and Maacah. (22:20-24)
Targum Jonathan contains added information that has no relationship to the words of the Genesis account. It represents Ishmael in an argument with Isaac. Ishmael claimed that he had the right to the inheritance of Abraham because of being his firstborn. Isaac countered with the words, “It is right that I should inherit what is [my] father’s because I am the son of his wife Sarah, and you are the son of Hagar the handmaid of my mother.” Ishmael then contended that he was “more righteous” than Isaac because he allowed himself to be circumcised (although he could have prevented it) at thirteen years of age, whereas Isaac had no such option when he was circumcised as a child of eight days. To this, Isaac responded, “Today I am thirty-six years old. And if the Holy One, blessed be he, were to require all my members, I would not delay.” It was this willingness on Isaac’s part to sacrifice everything that then occasioned Abraham’s being tested to offer his son.
After having been informed about the birth of a son to his wife Sarah, Abraham apparently thought about the impact this might have on his son Ishmael and was moved to appeal to YHWH with the words, “O that Ishmael might live before you!” (Genesis 17:17, 18) Upon having learned about the coming destruction of Sodom, Abraham, probably also out of deep concern for the welfare of his nephew Lot, had pleaded with YHWH regarding the people of the city. (Genesis 18:20-32) Faced with the greatest trial imaginable in connection with his beloved son Isaac, however, he appears to have remained silent, bearing the emotional strain that must have affected him without saying a word to anyone. Not until arriving at the divinely designated site did Abraham reveal to Isaac the nature of the sacrifice.
In his Antiquities, (I, xiii, 2), Josephus attributed Abraham’s not telling anyone what God had asked of him because of desiring to be obedient in everything. “Abraham thought it was not right to disobey God in anything, but that he was obliged to serve him in every circumstance of life, since all living creatures enjoy their life by his providence and the kindness he bestows on them. Accordingly, he concealed this command of God, and his own intentions about the slaughter of his son, from his wife, as also every one of his servants,” so as not to be “hindered from his obedience to God.”
It appears that Josephus felt that he needed to expand on what happened before Abraham was about to sacrifice his beloved son Isaac, thereby weakening the impact of the laconic nature of the Genesis account. Josephus (Antiquities, I, xiii, 3) quoted Abraham as telling Isaac: “O son, I poured out a vast number of prayers that I might have you for my son. When you came into the world, there was nothing that could contribute to your support for which I was not greatly solicitous, nor anything wherein I thought myself happier than to see you grown up to man’s estate, and that I might leave you at my death the successor of my dominion. But since it was by God’s will that I became your father, and it is now his will that I relinquish you, bear this consecration to God with a generous mind. I resign you up to God, who has thought fit now to require this testimony of honor to himself on account of the favors he has conferred on me in being to me a supporter and defender. Accordingly, you, my son, will now die, not in any common way of going out of the world, but sent to God, the Father of all men, beforehand, by your own father, in the nature of a sacrifice. I suppose he thinks you worthy to get clear of this world neither by disease, neither by war, not by any other severe way, by which death usually comes upon men.”
Contrasting with the comments of Josephus are the words of Hebrews 11:17-19, where the reference is to Abraham’s faith that God was able to resurrect Isaac from the dead. The basis for this faith is identified as trust in God’s promise that Abraham’s “seed” would be called “in Isaac.” It may also have been on account of this faith that Abraham indicated to the two servants that he and Isaac would return after having worshiped at the divinely designated site. (22:5) Another possibility is that his words concealed what he, in obedience to God’s command, was about to do to Isaac.
Josephus quoted Isaac as expressing himself to his father, saying to him “that he was not worthy to be born at first, if he were to reject the determination of God and of his father and were not to resign himself readily to both their pleasures. It would have been unjust if he had not obeyed, even if his father alone had so resolved.” “So he went immediately to the altar to be sacrificed.” (Antiquities, I, xiii, 4) The Jerusalem Targum also includes words of Isaac, but these have no parallel in the writings of Josephus. “My father, bind my hands rightly, lest in the hour of my affliction I tremble and confuse you, and your offering be found profane, and I be cast into the pit of destruction in the world to come.” Moreover, this Targum indicates that, as Isaac looked up, he saw angels, but his father did not. The angels are referred to as saying, “Come, behold two righteous ones alone in the midst of the world: the one slays, the other is slain. He who slays defers not, and he who is to be slain stretches out his neck.”
Besides proving to be a test of Abraham’s faith and obedience, the command regarding Isaac and the ultimate outcome of the related developments may have served as a precedent that human sacrifice was not what God wants. In view of the fact that Abraham was not permitted to sacrifice Isaac, his descendants should never offer their children as sacrifices to YHWH.
There is also a possibility that what Abraham and Isaac portrayed served to point to the future time when God would demonstrate his great love for the human family by giving his Son as the means to have their sins forgiven and to be reconciled to him and when his Son, Jesus Christ, would willingly lay down his life as a sacrifice for humankind.
Abraham’s beloved wife Sarah died in Kiriath-arba (Hebron) at the age of 127. The original designation Kiriath-arba, meaning “city of Arba,” appears to preserve the name of its Anakim founder, Arba. (Joshua 14:15) Lying at an elevation of about 3,000 feet (c. 900 meters) above sea level, Kiriath-arba or Hebron is situated approximately 19 miles (c. 30 kilometers) south of Jerusalem. The people of the native population in the region were called “sons of Heth.” This expression is commonly rendered “Hittites” in modern translations. Based on Genesis 10:15, the “sons of Heth” were the descendants of Heth the son of Canaan, the son of Noah’s son Ham. (23:1, 2)
After mourning Sarah’s death, Abraham approached the “sons of Heth” (probably elders in the community) to request a burial site for her. As an alien resident in the region, he did not own any property and was dependent on the land owners to grant his request. They recognized Abraham as a “prince of God” or a mighty prince, probably on the basis of his large household, including many servants, and sizable flocks and herds. The land owners offered him the opportunity to select a choice burial site, assuring him that none among them would withhold from him any place of his choosing. (23:2-6)
Respectfully, Abraham bowed to the “people of the land,” the “sons of Heth” to whom he had made his request. Apparently Abraham did not desire to be given a site within a land owner’s property but wanted actual ownership of the burial site. Therefore, he asked the men to entreat Ephron the son of Zohar to make available the “cave of Machpelah,” which was located at the end of his field. Abraham wanted the men to witness the purchase of the cave for its full price. (23:7-9)
It so happened that Ephron was sitting among the “sons of Heth,” and he spoke up in the hearing of all of them, including all the people who passed through the city gate. For a burial place, Ephron offered to give Abraham the field that included the cave. Again Abraham bowed down before the “people of the land” and, in their hearing, directed his words to Ephron. Abraham made it clear to Ephron that he wanted ownership of the burial site, telling him that he would give him the price of the field. Ephron then set the purchase price at 400 silver shekels (didrachmas [LXX]), adding, “What is that between me and you?” The question has been variously interpreted in modern translations. “Why should we haggle over such a small amount?” (CEV) “I won’t argue with you over the price.” (NCV) “What is that between friends?” (NLT) (23:10-15)
The purchase price does appear to have been extremely high, and it is not evident from the context that Ephron had ruled out the option for negotiation. There is a possibility that the entire property was quite large, justifying a payment of 400 silver shekels. Whatever the situation may have been, Abraham agreed to Ephron’s terms, weighed out the 400 silver shekels according to the then-existing standard weight. For the purchase price, Abraham obtained the field in Machpelah in the vicinity of “Mamre, that is, Hebron.” The purchase included the cave and all the trees on the land, and the link of Mamre to Hebron could indicate that Mamre was in the region of Hebron. After obtaining full possession of the site in the presence of the people who witnessed the legal transaction, Abraham buried his wife in the cave. The name Machpelah is drawn from a root that means “double,” suggesting that there may have been a double entrance to the cave or that there were two recesses within the cave. In the Septuagint, the “cave of Machpelah” (23:9) is called “double cave.” (23:16-20)
In the Septuagint, the 400 silver shekels (23:16) are referred to as 400 “didrachmas.” In the first century CE, the Jews paid an annual temple tax of a didrachma or two drachmas. (Matthew 17:24) The Romans officially evaluated the silver drachma as three fourths of a denarius. On the basis of ancient shekel weights, a silver didrachma was worth considerably less than a silver shekel.
Two clay tablets with text in cuneiform script found at Hattusa (Bogazkoy), in modern-day Turkey, contain Hittite laws. If laws of this nature existed among the “sons of Heth” in the time of Abraham, they may provide some background for understanding why Abraham only wanted to buy the cave and not the entire property, whereas Ephron appears to have insisted on the sale of the field with the cave and all the trees on the land. The owner of the smaller part of a property was not responsible for rendering certain services, but the owner of the larger section would continue to be responsible for providing the required services. In the third edition of Ancient Near Eastern Texts (page 191), the following provisions are included in paragraphs 46 and 47: “If in a village anyone holds fields under socage as inheritance — if the fields have all been given to him, he shall render the services; if the fields have been given to him only to a small part, he shall not render the services, they shall render them from his father’s house ... If anyone buys all the fields of a craftsman, he shall render the services. If he buys a great (part of) the fields, he shall not render the services.”
According to paragraph 183 of the Hittite laws, the price for an acre of land was set at three silver shekels. On this basis, Ephron’s asking price for the field was exorbitant, unless it consisted of many acres of land.
About three years after Sarah’s death, Abraham arranged to obtain a wife for his son Isaac. (See Genesis 17:17; 23:1; 25:20.) By then, Abraham had lived about 140 years, and YHWH had blessed him in everything. To procure a suitable wife for forty-year-old Isaac (25:20), Abraham entrusted this assignment to the oldest servant in his household, an exceptionally reliable steward whom he had placed in charge of all his property. Neither the Hebrew text nor the Septuagint identify this steward by name, but Targum Jonathan says that it was Eliezer. This was the trustworthy servant whom Abraham considered to be his heir before the births of Ishmael and Isaac. (15:2) Abraham asked the steward to swear by YHWH, the God of heaven and earth, that he would not take a wife for his son from among the Canaanites but would go to his relatives in the country where he had formerly lived and there obtain a wife. (24:1-4)
When swearing the oath, the servant was to place his hand under Abraham’s thigh or hip (yarék). This may have signified that he, in full submission to his master, would carry out everything to which he had sworn. The Hebrew word yarék is also used euphemistically to apply to the generative organ. (46:26) According to Targum Jonathan, the servant was to place his hand on the “section of [Abraham’s] circumcision.” The circumcision was a sign of the covenant that included the divine promise regarding the continuance of the family line of Abraham and, ultimately, concerning the coming of the Messiah through whom people of all nations could obtain the blessing of forgiveness of sins and reconciliation to God. Viewed in this light, the servant would have sworn that he would faithfully do his part in sharing in the fulfillment of what the covenant of circumcision required. (24:2)
If the chosen woman was unwilling to leave her country, Abraham told the servant that he was not to take Isaac there. Abraham expressed his confidence that YHWH, the “God of heaven” (“and the God of the earth” [LXX adds]), would send his angel “before his face” or before him so that he might take a wife from there for his son. According to Targum Jonathan, Abraham said that “YHWH [Yy (Yeya)] whom I worship will appoint his angel to be with you, and will prosper your way.” Apparently the basis for Abraham’s confidence was YHWH’s past dealings with him. He had taken him from his father’s house and the land of his birth, promising to give his “seed” or descendants the land in which he was then residing. If the woman refused to accompany him, however, the oath would not be binding on the servant. By no means was he to take Isaac to her land. (24:5-8)
As requested, the servant put his hand under the thigh of his master Abraham and swore the oath. He then departed with ten of Abraham’s camels, fellow servants (24:32), and a variety of choice gifts from Abraham, heading north to Aram-naharaim (Aram of the two rivers, the Tigris and the Euphrates) or “Mesopotamia” (LXX) to the “city of Nahor” (either a designation for Haran or for a nearby place in northern Mesopotamia). (24:9, 10) In his Antiquities (I, xvi, 1), Josephus commented on the journey, indicating that it took considerable time under difficult conditions. In winter, the traveler had to contend with “the depth of the clay” and, in summer, the “lack of water.” The route also was one beset by robbers, requiring taking precautions beforehand.
Upon having safely arrived outside the “city of Nahor,” the servant had the camels kneel down by a well (apparently one fed by a spring) at evening time when, during the cooler part of the day, the women would be coming to draw water. He prayed that YHWH, the God of his master Abraham, would grant him success in finding a wife for Isaac and thereby show steadfast love or kindness (“mercy” [LXX]) to his master. To be sure about YHWH’s choice of the woman who was to become the wife of Isaac, the servant prayed that she might be manifest from the other women by her response to his request for a drink. She would offer him a drink and also volunteer to draw water for the ten camels. (24:11-14)
Before the servant had completed praying, a beautiful virgin, Rebekah the daughter of Bethuel, the son of Abraham’s brother Nahor by his wife Milcah, arrived, carrying a vessel on her shoulder with which to draw water. After seeing her filling her vessel with water, the servant ran to meet her and asked her to give him a little drink of water. Rebekah responded, “Drink, my lord.” Quickly, with one hand, she let down the vessel from her shoulder upon her other hand and gave him a drink. After giving him a drink, she offered to draw water for the camels until they were finished drinking. In the nearby trough, Rebekah quickly emptied the water she repeatedly drew from the well for all the camels. This required considerable effort on her part as she ran to the well again and again, for a thirsty camel may drink more than 30 gallons (c. 140 liters) of water. (24:15-20)
In silence, the servant gazed at Rebekah, wanting to know whether or not YHWH had prospered his journey. According to the Septuagint rendering, the servant observed Rebekah closely. Although she had responded in the manner that corresponded with his prayer, he did not know whether she was related to Abraham. (24:21)
After the camels had finished drinking, the servant presented Rebekah with a gold nose ring (24:47) weighing half a shekel and two gold bracelets weighing ten shekels. In response to his question whose daughter she was and whether there was room for lodging in her father’s house, she identified herself as the daughter of Bethuel, the son of Nahor and his wife Milcah, and added that there was ample straw and fodder for the animals and room for lodging. Her answer revealed that she was a relative of Abraham, the granddaughter of his brother Nahor. Recognizing YHWH’s guidance in having found a wife for Isaac, the servant bowed down in worship, saying, “Blessed [or praised] be YHWH, the God of my master who has not forsaken his steadfast love [righteousness or justice (LXX)] and his truth [faithfulness or trustworthiness] toward my master. YHWH has led me on the way to the house of my master’s kinsmen.” (24:22-27)
Rebekah ran to the “house of her mother.” In that culture, women had their own place of dwelling within the family property, and it would have been natural for Rebekah to tell her mother about what had happened at the well. When her brother Laban heard about the developments and saw the gold nose ring (24:47) and the gold bracelets on her arms, he ran out to meet Abraham’s servant. The reference to his seeing the precious gifts before taking action might be an indication that his motive in extending hospitality was not altogether pure. (24:28-30)
Laban greeted Abraham’s servant who was standing at the well by the camels, saying to him, “Come, O blessed one of YHWH. Why do you stand outside? I have prepared the house and a place for the camels.” The servant and the men who had accompanied him entered the house, and the camels were unloaded and given straw and fodder. (24:31, 32) According to Targum Jonathan, “Laban” was the one who cared for the animals and brought water to wash the feet of Abraham’s servant and the men who were with him. Josephus (Antiquities, I, xvi, 3), however, wrote that it was the “servants of Laban” who took care of the camels. The extant Hebrew text is somewhat ambiguous, for it does not identify the one or ones who attended to the animals.
Upon food being set before him, Abraham’s servant said that he would not eat until he had revealed the nature of his errand. After identifying himself as Abraham’s servant, he related that YHWH had greatly blessed his master Abraham, giving him flocks and herds, silver and gold, male and female servants, and camels and donkeys. His wife Sarah had borne a son to him in his old age, and this son was the heir of everything. (24:33-36)
From this point onward, the servant basically repeated what his master Abraham had said to him about obtaining a wife for his son, the oath he had sworn, his own prayer at the well, how Rebekah had fulfilled the sign that pointed to her as the woman YHWH had chosen to be the wife of his master’s son, and his prayer of thanksgiving for having been led in the right way to obtain this wife. (24:37-48; compare 24:3-8, 12-20, 22-24, 26, 27.) The servant presented the ones who could consent to the marriage of Rebekah the choice to manifest “steadfast love” or kindness (“mercy” [LXX]) and “truth” or trustworthiness [“righteousness” or justice (LXX)] toward his master Abraham by granting consent or to refuse consent for the marriage. He then would be able to turn to the “right or to the left,” meaning that their decision would allow him to act accordingly. (24:49)
Based on what the servant had told them, Laban and Bethuel acknowledged that YHWH had so appointed matters that there really was nothing they could say. They could speak neither “good” (consenting to the marriage) nor “bad” (objecting to the marriage). Therefore, they told the servant to take Rebekah and to let her be the wife of his master’s son just as YHWH had appointed. Thereafter the servant prostrated himself before YHWH, apparently to render thanks. He then gave silver and gold ornaments and clothing to Rebekah and costly items to her brother and her mother. (24:50-53)
With the decision having been made about the marriage of Rebekah, the servant and the men with him ate and drank and retired for the night. Upon their rising in the morning, the servant asked to be sent back to Abraham with Rebekah. Laban and Rebekah’s mother, though, wanted her to remain with them for at least ten days. It appears that the servant recognized that any delay in his departure would not work out well, for it was more likely for this to lead to a period of sadness about Rebekah’s leaving and also to talk that could have been designed to sway her from being willing to depart. He, therefore, insisted on not being detained, for YHWH had prospered his way. Rebekah’s brother and mother then called her and asked her whether she was willing to depart with the servant, and she replied in the affirmative. They sent Rebekah and her nurse and maids away with him and his men, blessing her with the parting words, “May you become thousands of myriads, and may your seed possess the gate of those hating him” (or may your descendants become very numerous and gain control over the people in the cities of their enemies). Seated on the camels, Rebekah and her maids rode away with Abraham’s servant and the men who had accompanied him. (24:54-61)
It was in the evening that they completed the long journey (well over 500 miles [800 kilometers]) from upper Mesopotamia to the Negeb south of the mountainous region that many years later came to be included in the territory assigned to the tribe of Judah. At the time of their arrival, Isaac was walking in the field somewhere near Beer-la-hai-roi and meditating, and he saw the camels approaching. It appears that Abraham’s servant, out of respect for his master, got off his camel when he saw Isaac. This seems to have been an indication to Rebekah that she should also alight from the camel when she saw him, and she asked, “Who is the man walking in the field toward us?” Upon being informed that he was the servant’s master, Rebekah veiled herself. The servant related to Isaac everything that had taken place, and he took Rebekah into the tent of his mother Sarah. Rebekah became his wife, he fell in love with her, and found comfort after having lost his mother in death about three years previously. (24:62-67)
Josephus, in his Antiquities, (I, xvi, 2), has Rebekah telling the servant that her father Bethuel was “dead” and then adding, “Laban is my brother and, together with my mother, takes care of all our family affairs and is the guardian of my virginity.” The Genesis account represents Bethuel as still being alive (24:50), but in a manner suggesting that he may have been unable to function as family head. Laban is the one who figures prominently in the interactions with the servant. Although the servant gave gifts to him and to the mother, he did not give any presents to the father. Moreover, when Bethuel is mentioned as speaking, Laban is the one whose name appears first in the account. It may be, in view of the seeming incapacity of Bethuel, that he was already considered to be dead. Targum Jonathan says that Bethuel died in the morning after he had eaten tainted food in the evening when Abraham’s servant arrived. According to a Jewish view from a later time, Bethuel wanted to prevent the marriage and, therefore, an angel killed him. This is then presented as the reason Bethuel is not mentioned as receiving any gifts.
An old Jewish interpretation about why Laban, not Bethuel, is mentioned first in Genesis 24:50 is that Laban was not an upright man and, therefore, rushed in to speak first.
In verse 63, there is a measure of uncertainty about what Isaac was doing in the field. The word in the Septuagint is a form of adoleschéo and may be translated “meditate.” Targum Jonathan indicates that he went into the field to pray. Numerous modern translations refer to “walking,” not “meditating.” The Tanakh (JPS, 1985 edition) uses “walking” in the main text, and a footnote indicates that others say “to meditate” but that the meaning of the Hebrew is uncertain.
The Genesis account does not reveal when Abraham took Keturah (Chettoura [LXX]) as a wife. Her position was that of a concubine (1 Chronicles 1:32) and differed from that of Sarah, the mistress of the household. In the culture of that time, concubinage was common. Josephus appears to have understood that Keturah came to be a concubine while Sarah was still alive. He wrote that “Isaac married [Rebekah], the inheritance having now come to him; for the children of Keturah had gone to their own remote habitations.” (Antiquities, I, xvi, 3) The marriage of Isaac to Rebekah occurred about three years after Sarah’s death and, according to Josephus, the sons of Keturah already lived in their own regions. If this was the case, Sarah did not object to Abraham’s having Keturah as a concubine, for the sons of Keturah would in no way have threatened the position of Isaac as Hagar’s son Ishmael had. Therefore, it appears that the miraculous revival of Abraham’s reproductive powers did not end with the birth of Isaac. By Keturah, Abraham had six sons — Zimran (Zemran or Zembran [LXX]), Jokshan (Iexan [LXX]), Medan (Madan [LXX]) , Midian (Madiam [LXX]), Ishbak (Iesbok [LXX]), and Shuah (Soye [LXX]). (25:1, 2)
One conjecture places the descendants of Zimran in a region on the eastern shore of the Red Sea. Tribes that descended from Joktan, his sons Sheba and Dedan, and Dedan’s progeny (the Asshurim, Letushim, and Leummim) lived in various parts of Arabia. Medan may have been the forefather of an Arabian tribe that occupied an area to the south of Tema. The descendants of Midian, including those of his sons Ephah, Epher, Hanoch, Abida, and Eldaah, were nomadic tent dwellers who lived in the northwestern part of Arabia to the east of the Gulf of ‛Aqaba. According to one view, Ishbak’s descendants resided in the northern part of Syria. Shuah’s descendants may have lived along the right bank of the Euphrates River. (25:2-4)
Abraham constituted Isaac the heir of all his property but gave gifts to the sons of his concubines (apparently Hagar and Keturah) and sent them away to the east, to the “land of the East” (Arabia). He died at the age of 175, being “gathered to his people” or joining his ancestors in the realm of the dead at a “good old age.” His sons Isaac and Ishmael buried him in the cave of Machpelah located in the field that Abraham had purchased for a burial site for his wife Sarah from Ephron the son of Zohar of the “sons of Heth.” The presence of Ishmael at the burial of Abraham indicates that contact with him had continued after he was dismissed from the household with his mother Hagar. (25:5-10)
After the death of his father Abraham, Isaac lived in the vicinity of Beer-lahai-roi between Kadesh (a city on the western extremity of the region that later became Edomite territory) and Bered. (16:14) He continued to enjoy God’s blessing. (25:11)
Before the birth of Isaac, YHWH’s angel had revealed to Abraham that his son Ishmael by Hagar, Sarah’s Egyptian maid, would become the father of twelve princes or chieftains. (17:18-20) This was fulfilled, for Ishmael came to have twelve sons — the firstborn Nebaioth, Kedar, Adbeel (Nabdeel [LXX]), Mibsam (Massam [LXX]), Mishma (Masma [LXX]), Dumah (Idouma [LXX]), Massa (Masse [LXX]), Hadad (Choddad [LXX]), Tema (Thaiman [LXX]), Jetur (Ietour [LXX]), Naphish (Naphes [LXX]), and Kedemah (Kedma [LXX]). Their descendants appear to have lived a nomadic existence in the Sinai Peninsula, in northern Arabia, and in land as far north as the border of Assyria. Ishmael died at the age of 137 and “was gathered to his people,” joining his ancestors in the realm of the dead. (25:12-18)
Isaac the son of Abraham by his wife Sarah was 40 years old when he married Rebekah, the “daughter of Bethuel, the Aramean of Paddan-aram [Syrian from Mesopotamia (LXX)],” and the “sister of Laban the Aramean [Syrian (LXX)].” Paddan-aram was a region in northern Mesopotamia, where the city of Haran was located. Years passed, and Rebekah did not become pregnant. Therefore, Isaac prayed for his wife that she might be able to conceive. When she did become pregnant about nineteen years after the marriage, she perceived intense struggling in her womb. The extreme discomfort caused her to raise the question, “Why do I live?” Rebekah prayed to YHWH about the situation. How she received the answer to her prayer is not revealed in the account. The message was that the offspring of “two nations” were in her womb, two peoples would be separating, one of them would be stronger than the other one, and the older would serve the younger. (25:19-23)
Rebekah gave birth to fraternal twin boys. The first baby to be born had red hair, like a hairy garment, all over his body. This came to be the basis for his name Esau, meaning “hairy.” The brother was born while holding on to the Esau’s heel. Therefore, he was named Jacob, meaning “heel grabber” or “supplanter.” At the time the twins were born, Isaac was 60 years old, and his father Abraham was about 160 years of age. (25:24-26)
After the twins grew up, Esau became an expert hunter, and Jacob pursued the more peaceful occupation of a tent-dwelling keeper of flocks and herds. Isaac loved Esau, for he brought him tasty game from his hunting. Rebekah, however, loved Jacob, preferring him over her older son. It appears that Esau was more like his energetic mother Rebekah, whereas Jacob was more like Isaac, the husband whom she dearly loved. (25:27, 28)
On one occasion, Esau appears to have returned from the field after an unsuccessful hunt. He was exhausted and hungry. At the time, Jacob was boiling a red lentil stew, which appeared very appealing to Esau. He said to Jacob, “Let me eat some of the red, the red here, for I am famished.” This incident came to be the basis for his name “Edom,” meaning “red.” Aware of his brother’s impulsive nature and flaws, Jacob opportunistically used the occasion to get from Esau what he wanted. He asked him to sell him his birthright in exchange for the stew. Esau replied, “Look, I am about to die, and of what use is a birthright to me?” Jacob was not satisfied with a mere statement from his brother. He wanted him to first swear to him that he was selling the birthright to him. Esau did swear to the transaction, and Jacob then gave him bread and lentil stew. After having satisfied himself with food and drink, Esau got up and went his way as a man who had disdain for his birthright. (25:29-34)
Targum Jonathan identifies Keturah as being Hagar, but this does not agree with Genesis 25:6, where the plural “concubines” is found. The apparent reference is to the concubines Hagar and Keturah. The name Keturah is thought to have been drawn from a root that is linked to incense, and this is the basis for the ancient Jewish view that “her deeds were as beautiful [or delightful] as incense.”
In verse 3, the names Asshurim (Assouriim [LXX]), Letushim (Latousiim [LXX]), and Leummim (Loomim [LXX]) are plural and probably designate specific peoples or tribes. The Septuagint indicates that Iexan (Jokshan) had three (not two) sons — Saba (Sheba), Thaiman, and Daidan (Dedan). Additionally, the Septuagint includes two other sons of Daidan (Dedan) — Ragouel and Nabdeel.
The Septuagint rendering of verse 4 identifies the sons to Madiam (Midian) to have been Gaipha or Gaiphar (Ephah), Apher (Epher), Enoch (Hanoch), Abira (Abida), and Elraga (Eldaah).
In his letter to the Romans (9:10-13), the apostle Paul mentioned the twins Jacob and Esau as an example establishing that God’s choosing of individuals is independent of works. In his foreknowledge, God selected the twin that would best serve his purpose. This choosing was revealed when God declared before the birth of the twins that the younger one would be the one whom the older one would serve. The later history confirmed that Esau and his descendants would not have been suitable to serve as the line of descent through which the promised “seed,” the Messiah, was to come. They chose not to have a relationship with God, and merited the divine judgment expressed centuries later in Malachi 1:2, 3, “I loved Jacob, but I hated Esau.”
Esau is an example of a profane man, one who lacked a spiritual focus. To satisfy his immediate hunger, he sold his birthright to his brother Jacob, manifesting no appreciation for the privileges and future blessings bound up with a firstborn’s birthright. Targum Jonathan represents Esau as denying any hope respecting future life. “Look, I am going to die, and in another world I shall have no life; and what then is the birthright to me, or the portion in the world of which you speak?”
In earlier years, Abraham and Sarah had experienced a severe famine in the land of Canaan, leading to their taking up temporary residence in Egypt. Faced with another severe famine in the land, Isaac headed for Gerar (not far from Gaza), where the Philistine king Abimelech ruled. Apparently this Abimelech was not the same king with whom Abraham had dealings at a much earlier time, and likely the designation “Abimelech” (“my father [is] king”) was a royal title. Like his father Abraham, Isaac probably planned to travel southward to Mizraim (Egypt). (26:1) Targum Jonathan is specific in saying that it was in Isaac’s “heart to go down to Mizraim [Egypt].” Josephus (Antiquities, I, xviii, 2) wrote that “Isaac resolved to go into Egypt,” but then said that “he went to Gerar, as God commanded him.”
YHWH (apparently the representative angel of YHWH) appeared to Isaac, instructing him not to go to Egypt but to remain in the land that had been promised to Abraham as a future inheritance. The nature of this appearance is not disclosed in the Genesis account. YHWH assured Isaac that he would bless him in the land, for he would give to him and his “seed” or descendants the entire land (literally, “all these lands”; “all this land” [LXX]), fulfilling the oath-bound promise he had made to his father Abraham. YHWH would increase the “seed” or descendants of Isaac “like the stars of the heavens.” “All the nations of the earth” were to bless themselves by his “seed.” (26:2-4) In the fulfillment, the “seed” by whom people of the nations were to bless themselves is the Messiah or Christ, Jesus the unique Son of God. Persons who put faith in him and his sacrifice of himself for them are granted forgiveness of their sins and thus gain an approved relationship with God as his beloved children.
The promise YHWH made to Isaac repeated the very promise he had earlier made to Abraham. This confirmation of the promise to Isaac occurred because Abraham had heeded YHWH’s “voice” and observed his charge, commandments, statutes, and laws. (26:5)
After Isaac began residing in Gerar, the inhabitants asked him about his wife Rebekah. Fearing that the men might kill him and that one of them would take possession of his wife as his own on account of her exceptional beauty, he, like his father Abraham had done many years earlier, told them that she was his sister. On a later occasion, the Philistine king Abimelech, from a window of his residence, observed the interaction of Isaac with Rebekah. He recognized that Rebekah was the wife of Isaac, not his sister. Abimelech thereafter reproved him for the misrepresentation that could have brought guilt on his people if one of the men had lain with her. Subsequently, he warned his subjects not to lay a hand on Isaac or on his wife, decreeing the death penalty for anyone who were to do so. (26:6-11)
In the same year, Isaac experienced YHWH’s blessing on his agricultural labors. He harvested a hundredfold from the seed he had sown. During the time he lived in the region, Isaac became very wealthy, accumulating flocks and herds. His household expanded extensively, apparently through the addition of many male and female servants and their offspring. As a result, he became an object of envy among the Philistines. (26:12-14)
After the death of Abraham, the Philistines had stopped up all the wells he had dug in the region, filling them with soil. Isaac reopened these wells and called them by the names his father had given them. (26:15, 18)
Imagining Isaac and his large household to have become a potential threat, Abimelech demanded that he move away, asserting that Isaac had become much mightier than he and his people. There were repeated problems with the Philistines after Isaac took up tenting in the valley of Gerar. Subsequent to digging a well in the valley and obtaining a water supply for flocks and herds, the servants of Isaac were faced with hostile herders from Gerar. The herders insisted that the water was theirs. For this reason, Isaac named the well “Esek” (“Contention”; “Injustice” [LXX]), “for they [the Philistines] had contended with him” (for they wronged him [did him injustice] [LXX]). Again a quarrel erupted with herders from Gerar respecting the digging of another well. Isaac named that well “Sitnah” (“Accusation”; “Enmity” [LXX]). (26:16-21) Josephus attributed Isaac’s withdrawal from violent confrontation with the Philistine herders to “rational and prudent conduct” that gained security for him. (Antiquities, I, xviii, 2)
To avoid future conflict with the Philistines, Isaac moved away from the area. This time no disputing arose in connection with the digging of a well. Therefore, Isaac named this well “Rehoboth” (“Broad Places” or “Spaciousness”) because he perceived that YHWH had “made room” for his household and that they would become fruitful in the land. He departed from there, arriving at Beer-sheba, a site at the edge of the desert south of the mountainous region of what later became a part of the territory of the tribe of Judah. That night (likely in a vision), YHWH (his representative angel) appeared to Isaac, identifying himself as the God of his father Abraham and telling him not to be afraid as he would be with him, bless him, and make his “seed” or descendants numerous “for the sake of [his] servant Abraham.” Isaac then built an altar there, called upon the “name” or person of YHWH (doubtless by offering sacrifices and praying to him). Isaac also located his tent at Beer-sheba, and his servants dug a well. (26:22-25)
After Isaac had relocated his household to Beer-sheba, Abimelech, accompanied by his “companion” or trusted counselor Ahuzzath (Ochozath [LXX] and Phicol (Phikol or Phichol [LXX]) the commander of his army arrived from Gerar. Isaac asked why they had come, considering that they hated him and had sent him away from their region. They explained that they recognized that YHWH was with him, and they wanted to conclude an oath-bound covenant with him, assuring them that he would not harm them just as they had not touched him. Apparently they regarded the size of Isaac’s household as a potential threat to their security and wanted a binding agreement so that a peaceful relationship would continue with a man whom they acknowledged as the “blessed one of YHWH” and to whom they claimed they had only done good and sent away in peace. (26:26-29)
Isaac prepared a feast for Abimelech, Ahuzzath, and Phicol. Early in the morning of the next day, they concluded an oath-bound covenant with one another, and the men departed from Isaac in peace. On the same day, Isaac’s servants reported that they had obtained water from the well they had dug. Isaac named the well Shibah (Oath [LXX]) and called the city Beer-sheba (“Well of an oath” [LXX]), apparently recalling the oath that Isaac, Abimelech, Ahuzzath, and Phicol had taken with one another. At the same time, Isaac preserved the name that his father Abraham had earlier given to the site. Beer-sheba continued to be the name of the place in the time the Genesis account came to be in its final written form. (26:30-33)
Apparently without the consent or guidance of his father Isaac, Esau, at the age of 40, married “Judith [Ioudin (LXX) the daughter of Beeri [Beer (LXX)] the Hittite and Basemath [Basemmath (LXX)] the daughter of Elon [Ailon (LXX)] the Hittite.” Josephus (Antiquities, I, xviii, 4) referred to the fathers of the two women as “great lords among the Canaanites.” Josephus wrote that Esau did not ask his father Isaac for advice and that Isaac would not have given his approval, “for he was not pleased with contracting any alliance with the people of that country.” The two women proved to be a source of bitterness (literally, “bitterness of spirit”) for Isaac and Rebekah. According to the Septuagint, the two women quarreled with Esau’s parents. (26:34, 35) Targum Jonathan indicates that Judith and Basemath engaged in strange worship and, by their evil conduct, rebelled against Isaac and Rebekah.
It appears that Phicol and Ahuzzath (Possession), like Abimelech, were official titles. According to the Septuagint (26:26), Ochozath (Ahuzzath) was Abimelech’s nymphagogós (literally, “leader of the bride”) and may here designate a “trusted companion” or counselor.
Targum Jonathan says that, after Isaac, departed from Gerar, the wells dried up and the trees did not bear fruit. This was the reason Abimelech, accompanied by his companions, came to Isaac, asking him to pray for them. The Targum quotes them as saying, “For your righteousness’ sake all good has come to us. But when you departed from our land, the wells dried up, and our trees bore no fruit. Then we said, We will cause him to return to us. And now let there be an oath established between us, and kindness between us and you, and we will enter into a covenant with you, lest you do us evil.”
When Isaac was advanced in age, he suffered from blindness. Based on the information in the Genesis account, he was about 137 years of age when he summoned his older son Esau. (See the Notes section.) At that time, Esau would have been about 77 years old. It is likely that the contact Isaac had with Esau was not as frequent as it had been in earlier years, particularly since Esau had been married for 37 years and had his own household. (26:34) Although not knowing the day of his death, Isaac may have believed it was near, for his half brother Ishmael had died at 137 years of age. (25:17) Therefore, Isaac wanted to make sure that he blessed Esau before his death and asked him to hunt for game and prepare a meal for him — a dish of which he was especially fond. (27:1-4)
After having heard what Isaac said to Esau, Rebekah decided to intervene, wanting Jacob to be the son to receive his father’s blessing. Josephus (Antiquities, I, xviii, 6) represented Rebekah as considering Jacob worthy of having supplication made for him to be the recipient of God’s favor and, therefore, acted contrary to Isaac’s intent to bless Esau. The Genesis account does not disclose whether Rebekah recalled the divine revelation that the older would serve the younger and whether she knew about Esau’s having sold his birthright to Jacob. She apparently felt justified in taking matters into her own hands. Instead of waiting on YHWH to fulfill his word, Rebekah devised a way to obtain the blessing for her favorite son. While Esau was away hunting for game, Rebekah planned to prepare a tasty dish for Isaac from the meat of two kids of the goats. When she told Jacob about what Isaac had said to Esau and what she purposed to do so that Esau would not be the one to receive the blessing, Jacob raised the objection that Isaac, by feeling him, might recognize him from his lack of bodily hair and then curse him. Rebekah replied, “Your curse [be] upon me, my son. Only obey my word and go fetch [the two kids of good goats] for me.” (27:5-13)
Jacob obeyed his mother and brought her the two kids of the goats, from which she prepared a tasty dish for Isaac. To deceive Isaac, Rebekah dressed Jacob in the best of Esau’s garments that were available to her and afixed the hairy goat skins on Jacob’s hands (probably including part of the arms [“arms,” not “hands” (LXX)]) and on his neck. With bread and the tasty dish that Rebekah had prepared, Jacob went to his father and identified himself as Esau his firstborn son. Asked how it happened that he had so quickly found game, Jacob replied, “Because YHWH your God had [it] meet up with me.” (27:14-20)
Based on Jacob’s voice and possibly also on how he expressed himself, Isaac appears to have been unsure about whether he was speaking to Esau. He asked Jacob to come near so that he might feel him to determine whether he truly was Esau his son. Upon feeling the hairy goat skins, Isaac concluded that the hands were those of Esau but that the voice was the voice of Jacob. The deception that Rebekah devised worked. Isaac did not recognize Jacob because he perceived the hands to be the hairy hands of Esau. Nevertheless, he again asked Jacob, “Are you really my son Esau?” Jacob answered, “I am.” (27:21-24)
In response to Isaac’s request for him to bring him the dish made from the game so that he might be blessed, Jacob brought it to him. Isaac ate and drank and then asked his son to come near and to kiss him. He smelled the garments that belonged to Esau and expressed the blessing in keeping with what his sense of smell had perceived. “See the smell of my son [is] as the smell of a field that YHWH has blessed. May God give you of the dew of the heavens and of the fatness [or plenty] of the earth [or land] and abundance of grain and wine. Let peoples serve you and nations bow down to you. Be master over your brothers, and may your mother’s sons bow down to you. Cursed be everyone cursing you, and blessed be everyone blessing you.” (27:25-29)
The blessing was a prayerful request for God to prosper the agricultural labor of Jacob’s descendants, providing the essential dew during the dry season to preserve the maturing crops and making it possible for Jacob’s descendants to enjoy good grain harvests and wine from the juice of productive grapevines. Instead of being subservient to other tribes and nations, the descendants of Jacob were to be a free people whom others would acknowledge as their superiors. Even their most closely related descendants, the “sons” of the same mother or ancestress, were to make the same acknowledgment. Targum Jonathan is more specific in the wording relating to the superior position of the descendants of Jacob. “Let peoples be subject to you, all the sons of Esau, and kingdoms bow before you, all the sons of Keturah. May you be a chief and a ruler over your brothers, and let the sons of your mother salute you.” The Jerusalem Targum includes a number of other interpretive elements. “Let peoples serve before you, all the sons of Esau. All kings be subject to you, all the sons of Ishmael. May you be a chief and a ruler over the sons of Keturah. And the sons of Laban the brother of your mother will come before you and salute you.”
After Isaac had blessed him and Jacob had barely left his father’s presence, Esau returned from the hunt. He prepared a tasty dish with meat from the game, brought it to Isaac, requested that his father sit up, partake of the food, and bestow his blessing on him. Esau identified himself as the firstborn son upon being asked, “Who are you?” Isaac then began to tremble violently and said, “Who was it then who hunted game and brought it to me? And I ate everything before you came, and I have blessed him, and indeed blessed he will be.” Esau gave way to loud and bitter weeping, pleading with his father to bless him also. Isaac responded that Esau’s brother had come with deceit and taken away his blessing. (27:30-35)
Esau recognized that the name Jacob (“supplanter”) had fittingly been given to his brother, for he had supplanted him twice. Jacob had taken away his birthright and his blessing. Esau asked whether his father had not reserved a blessing for him. Seemingly, Isaac recognized that the pronouncement of the blessing on Jacob was according to God’s will. Therefore, he could not nullify it. Isaac said to Esau that he had made Jacob master over him and given “all his brothers” (or all those closely related to him) as his servants. Moreover, he would be “sustained with grain and wine,” or be abundantly supplied with food and drink. In view of the blessing he had pronounced on Jacob, Isaac concluded with the words, “What then can I do for you, my son?” Esau pleaded with his father for just one blessing and wept aloud. (27:36-38)
Isaac spoke prophetically of what the future for Esau and his descendants would be. “[Away] from the fatness of the earth will be your dwelling and [away] from the dew of the heavens above. And by the sword you will live, and your brother you will serve.” This situation, however, would not continue, Esau (or his descendants) would break free from his brother’s yoke. (27:39, 40) The region that the descendants of Esau came to occupy contained limited fertile land. Its strategic position, however, made it necessary for caravans to travel on the roads traversing the territory. By exacting tolls from those passing through their land and probably also having them pay for food, water, and lodging, the descendants of Esau acquired great wealth. They appear to have been prepared to use the “sword” to enforce their demands. (Compare Numbers 20:14-21.)
During the course of history, the descendants of Jacob did exercise control over the descendants of Esau, but there were reversals. (1 Samuel 14:47, 48; 2 Samuel 8:13, 14; 1 Kings 11:15-17; 2 Kings 8:20-22; 2 Chronicles 28:16, 17) According to Targum Jonathan, Esau (his descendants) would break the yoke of servitude from his neck when the “sons” or descendants of Jacob would fail to observe the “commandments of the law.” The Jerusalem Targum adds that the “sons” or descendants of Jacob could impose the yoke of servitude only when they observed the commandments.
Josephus (Antiquities, I, xviii, 7) represents Isaac as expressing himself in a manner that differs from the wording of the Genesis account. “Being grieved at [Esau’s] weeping,” Isaac said that Esau “should excel in hunting and strength of body in arms and all such kinds of work,” acquiring “glory forever” by those means — “he and his posterity after him.”
Esau hated Jacob for what he had done in obtaining Isaac’s blessing for himself and determined to kill him after the death of his father. Upon hearing what Esau planned to do, Rebekah told Jacob to flee to her brother Laban in Haran and to remain there until Esau’s anger had passed and he would have forgotten about what Jacob had done to him. She then planned to send for Jacob. Her wish for Jacob to flee was so that she might not be bereft of both of her sons in “one day” or at the same time. To persuade Isaac to agree with her in sending Jacob to Laban, Rebekah mentioned the trouble Esau’s wives had brought into her life and added, “What good will my life be to me if Jacob marries [one of the] daughters of Heth such as these?” (27:41-46)
Josephus (Antiquities, I, xviii, 6) wrote that Jacob followed the instructions Rebekah gave to him and did not attribute the actions to Rebekah herself as does the extant Hebrew text. Jacob “took a goat’s skin,” placing it about his arm, that “its hairy roughness” would convince his father that he was indeed Esau.
Josephus (Antiquities, I, xviii, 6), in a way that significantly differed from the record in the Genesis account, worded Isaac’s prayerful appeal for Jacob, the son whom he believed to be Esau. “O Lord of all ages and Creator of all substance; for it was you who did set before my father an abundance of good things and considered me worthy of what I possess, and have promised to be the kind supporter of my posterity and to bestow on them still greater blessings. Do you, therefore, confirm these your promises and do not overlook me because of my present weak condition, on account of which I most earnestly pray to you. Be gracious to this my son, preserve him, and keep him from everything that is evil. Grant him a happy life and the possession of as many good things as your power is able to bestow. Make him a terror to his enemies and honorable and beloved among his friends.”
After having served Laban for fourteen years, Jacob became father to Joseph by his wife Rachel. (30:25) Thereafter he served Laban for six more years and obtained wages in the form of sheep and goats. (31:41) At the time Jacob arrived with his household to settle in Egypt, he was 130 years of age, and Joseph was 39 years old. (41:46, 47, 53, 54; 45:11; 47:9) This would make Jacob about 91 years of age at the time Joseph was born and after he had begun to serve Laban fourteen years earlier. Accordingly, he was about 77 years old when his service to Laban began. Isaac was 60 years of age at the time the twins Jacob and Esau were born (25:26) and, therefore, about 137 years of age at the time of Jacob’s departure.
In view of what Rebekah had said about how she would be affected if Jacob were to marry a woman like the ones whom Esau had married, Isaac sent for Jacob and instructed him not to take a wife from among the Canaanite women. Instead, he was to go to Padda-arm (in northern Mespotamia) to the “house of Bethuel,” the father of Rebekah, and marry one of the daughters of her brother Laban. Isaac blessed Jacob with a blessing that was of greater significance than the one which Jacob, at the directive of Rebekah, had received through deception. Unlike the earlier blessing, the new blessing focused on God’s promise to Abraham. “May God Almighty bless you and make you fruitful and multiply you so that you may become a congregation of peoples. May he give you the blessing of Abraham, to you and to your seed [or descendants] with you, that you may possess the land of your alien residences, [the land] which God gave to Abraham.” This blessing made it clear that the descendants of Jacob, not of Esau, would receive the land that had been promised to Abraham decades earlier. (28:1-4)
Esau came to know that Isaac had sent Jacob to Paddan-arm (Mesopotamia [LXX]), to “Laban the son of Bethuel the Aramean [Syrian (LXX)], the brother of Rebekah.” His father Isaac had sent Jacob to take a wife from there, had blessed him, and instructed him not to marry one of the Canaanite women. Jacob had obeyed his father and mother and set out for Paddan-aram. Having come to realize that his Canaanite wives did not please his father Isaac, Esau decided to marry yet another woman. He went to the family of Ishmael (the son of Abraham by Hagar) and chose as his wife Mahalath the sister of Ishmael’s firstborn son Nebaioth. It appears that Mahalath was also known as Basemath. (25:13; 28:5-9; 36:3) In his Antiquities (I, xviii, 8), Josephus referred to her as Basemmath (Basemath) and wrote that Esau took her as his wife to please his father Isaac and had “great affection for her.”
From Beer-sheba (Well of an oath [LXX]; a place at the edge of the desert south of the mountainous region of what later became a part of the territory of the tribe of Judah), Jacob headed northward toward Haran in Paddan-aram. After he had traveled some distance and the sun had set, he decided to lie down to sleep, placing a stone under his head for support. (28:10, 11) Concerning the reason Jacob chose to sleep outside, Josephus (Antiquities, I, xix, 1) wrote, “Because he hated the people of that country, he would not lodge with any of them, but took up his lodging in the open air, and laid his head on a heap of stones that he had gathered together.” Targum Jonathan says that Jacob used “four stones” for his pillow.
Jacob had a dream in which he saw a “ladder,” stairway, or ramp positioned on the ground, and its top reached the sky (literally, “the heavens”). “Angels of God” ascended and descended on it, suggesting that communication from heaven above could reach the earth below. YHWH (likely his representative angel) occupied the place at the top and confirmed the blessing of Isaac and the earlier promise made to Abraham, saying: “I am YHWH, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac. The land on which you are lying I will give to you and to your seed [descendants]. And your seed will be like the dust [particles] of the earth [or ground], and you will spread out to the west [the sea (the Mediterranean)],” the east, the north, and the south (the Negeb). “By you and by your seed, all the families of the earth will bless themselves. Look, I am with you and will preserve you wherever you go, and I will bring you back to this land, for I will not leave you until I have done that of which I have spoken to you.” (28:12-15)
Well over three centuries later, the descendants of Jacob began to take possession of the land that had been promised to them. The “seed” by whom people of the nations were to bless themselves is the Messiah or Christ, Jesus the unique Son of God. Persons who put faith in him and his sacrifice of himself for them are granted forgiveness of their sins and thus gain an approved relationship with God as his beloved children. As had been promised to him, Jacob did return safely to the land that became the inheritance of his descendants, proving that YHWH did not leave him.
When awakening from his sleep, Jacob was moved to say, “Surely YHWH is in this place, and I did not know it.” It may be that the location already had a sacred status, for Abraham, over 100 years previously, had built an altar east of the site that Jacob afterward called Bethel (“House of God”). (12:8; 28:16)
Jacob apparently was filled with a reverential fear and referred to the site as giving rise to fear or reverence. In view of the dream that revealed God and a personal message to him, he considered the location to be the “house of God” and the “gate of the heavens.” Early in the morning, Jacob took the stone that had served as his pillow, set it up as a pillar, and poured oil (undoubtedly olive oil) on the top of the stone. Previously the name of the city in the proximity of which Jacob had his dream was called Luz, but he, based on what he had experienced, called it Bethel. He vowed that YHWH would be his God to whom he would give a tenth of everything that he would come to have. This would be in the event that God would be with him, preserve him on the way, provide him with “bread to eat and clothing to wear,” and make it possible for him to return to his father’s house “in peace” or in safety and without having to face conflict. Jacob referred to the stone he had set up as a pillar as “house of God,” apparently because it would serve as a tangible testimony to what had taken place at the site. (28:17-22)
Targum Neofiti quotes Jacob, upon awakening from his sleep, as saying that the place was set aside before God, and that the gate was the “gate of prayer.” A similar thought is expressed in Targum Jonathan. “This place is not common, but the sanctuary of the Name of the Lord, the proper spot for prayer, set forth before the gate of heaven, and founded beneath the throne of glory.” Regarding the stone he had set up as a pillar, Targum Onkelos indicates that there Jacob would worship before God.
Basemath is the name found in Targum Jonathan, but Targum Neofiti and Targum Onkelos, like the Hebrew text (28:9), read Mahalath.
According to Targum Jonathan, the day on which Jacob set out from Beer-sheba was miraculously shortened because God (literally, the “Word”) wanted to speak with him. The second miracle was that the “four stones” Jacob used for a pillow had become one stone when he got up in the morning.
Targum Neofiti adds interpretive elements to the account in Genesis regarding the ladder, stairway, or ramp. “The angels who had accompanied [Jacob] from the house of his father ascended to bear good tidings to the angels on high, saying: Come and see a just man whose image is engraved in the throne of the glory, whom you desired to see. And look, the angels from before the Lord were ascending and descending and observed him.”
Josephus (Antiquities, I, xix, 2, 3) quoted God as saying the following: “O Jacob, it is not fit for you, the son of a good father and grandson of one who had obtained a great reputation for his eminent virtue, to be dejected at your present circumstances, but to hope for better times. You shall have great abundance of all good things by my assistance. For I brought Abraham here, out of Mesopotamia, when he was driven away by his kinsmen, and I made your father a happy man; nor will I bestow a lesser degree of happiness on you. Be of good courage, therefore, and under my conduct proceed on this your journey, for the marriage you so zealously pursue shall be consummated. You will have children of good characters, but their multitude will be innumerable. They will leave what they have to a still more numerous posterity, to whom, and to whose posterity, I will give the dominion of all the land, and their posterity will fill the entire earth and sea, so far as the sun beholds them. But do not you fear any danger nor be afraid of the many labors you must undergo.” Jacob then “became very joyful at what he had seen and heard.”
It may be noted that the deception in which Rebekah and Jacob participated led to loss for both of them. Rebekah lost years of association with her dearly loved son, and Jacob faced hardships and deceptive dealings in his service to Laban for the wife he truly wanted. For Rebekah and Jacob, patient waiting on YHWH to fulfill his word would have spared them much distress.
Apparently like a man infused with new life on account having received God’s blessing in a dream, Jacob “lifted up his feet” and proceeded on his journey, arriving in the land of the sons [or people] of the East (Mesopotamia). After “east,” the Septuagint adds, “to Laban the son of Bathouel [Bethuel] the Syrian, but brother of Rebekkas [Rebekah], mother of Jacob and Esau.” The wording of the Hebrew text suggests that the long journey seemingly appeared to Jacob as if it had been shortened so that he just lifted up his feet and then arrived at his destination. (29:1) In Targum Neofiti this is expressed literally as a miracle. “When our father [or forefather] raised his feet to go to Haran the earth shrank before him and he was found in Haran in a short hour.” Targum Jonathan and the Jerusalem Targum basically convey the same thought.
In a field near Haran, Jacob saw three flocks of sheep lying beside a well that was covered with a large stone. Customarily, once all the flocks were gathered there, the stone would be rolled away and the animals would be watered. Afterward the stone would be rolled back over the top of the well. (29:2, 3)
Jacob addressed the shepherds with the three flocks as “my brothers” and asked them from where they came. They happened to be from Haran and, therefore, Jacob inquired whether they knew “Laban the son [grandson] of Nahor.” They did know him. In response to Jacob’s asking about the welfare (“shalom” or peace) of Laban, they said, “Shalom” (peace or all is well), and informed him that his daughter Rachel was coming with his sheep. (29:4-6) According to Targum Jonathan, a plague from God had reduced the number of Laban’s sheep, leading to his dismissing the shepherds in his service and entrusting the greatly diminished remaining part of the flock to the care of Rachel.
It was then still broad daylight (literally, “high day”) and, as Jacob observed, not a time for the flocks to be lying down around the well. Therefore, he recommended that the shepherds water the sheep and lead the animals to pasture. They told him that they could not do so until all the flocks were gathered and the stone was rolled away from the well opening. While Jacob was still speaking to them, Rachel arrived with her father’s sheep. Seeing Rachel, the daughter of his mother’s brother Laban, and the sheep of her father, Jacob rolled the stone away from the well opening and watered Laban’s flock. Possibly Jacob, as a man who was not a resident of the area, did not consider himself bound by the requirement to wait until all the flocks were gathered at the well. (29:7-10) Targum Jonathan represents this act as a miracle and says that Jacob rolled the stone away with “one of his arms.”
Jacob kissed Rachel and was so greatly moved emotionally that he began to weep. He told her that he was her father’s kinsman and the son of Rebekah. (29:11, 12) According to Josephus (Antiquities, I, xix, 5), Jacob identified Rebekah as the sister of Rachel’s father Laban and, therefore, himself and Rachel as cousin-germans. Josephus continued: “At the mention of Rebekah, as usually happens to young persons, [Rachel] wept out of the kindness she had for her father and embraced Jacob.” This was because she had learned about Rebekah from her father. All the family would mention Rebekah, “always thinking of her and her alone.” Rachel added, “This will make you equal in [my father’s] eyes to any advantageous circumstances whatsoever.” Targum Jonathan, however, represents Laban very unfavorably. Rachel is quoted as telling Jacob regarding her father, “You cannot dwell with him, for he is a man of cunning.” To this, Jacob replied, “I am more cunning and wiser than he; nor can he do me evil, because the Word of the Lord is my helper.”
Rachel ran to her father to tell him about Jacob’s arrival. Upon hearing the news about Jacob, Laban ran to meet him, embraced him, kissed him, and brought him into his house. Jacob related to Laban everything that had happened to him, and Laban responded, “You are indeed my bone and my flesh,” meaning that Jacob was closely related to Laban. (29:12-14)
After Jacob had remained with him a whole month (literally, a “month of days”) and apparently had worked for him during his stay, Laban acknowledged that, even though he was a relative, Jacob should not be serving him for nothing. He then asked him, “What shall your wages be?” (29:14, 15)
Jacob had fallen in love with Rachel who was more beautiful than her older sister Leah. The eyes of Leah are described as “weak.” This probably meant that her eyes lacked luster. According to the Jerusalem Targum, her eyes “were tender, for she had wept and prayed that she might not be brought up in the lot of Esau” (or be destined as his wife). Targum Neofiti indicates that the eyes of Leah “were raised in prayer, begging that she be married to the just Jacob.” It appears that Jacob was particularly attracted to Rachel because she was beautiful like his mother Rebekah. Therefore, he expressed his willingness to serve Laban for seven years so that he might have Rachel as his wife. Laban replied that it would be better for Jacob (rather than another man) to have her and asked him to continue staying with him. (29:16-19) Targum Jonathan adds that Laban spoke “deceitfully.”
In view of his great love for Rachel, Jacob’s seven years of service to Laban passed quickly. To him, the time seemed to be just a few days. At the end of the seven years, Jacob asked that Rachel be given to him so that he could be intimate with her. Laban assembled all the men of the place and made a feast. In the evening, Laban brought Leah to Jacob, and he consummated the marriage. To be a maid for his daughter, Laban gave her his maid Zilpah. (29:20-24) Targum Jonathan identifies Zilpah as the daughter of Laban’s concubine.
Josephus (Antiquities, I, xix, 7) indicates that Jacob was under the influence of drink and that it was dark when Leah was given to him. She doubtless was veiled and did not say much to Jacob. According to Targum Jonathan, Rachel had made available to Leah all the things that Jacob had given to her. This Targum indicates that Laban took the advice of the men who had been invited to the feast. He is quoted as telling them, “Look, seven years since Jacob came to us the wells have not failed and the watered places have increased. And now come, let us counsel against him cunning counsel, that he may remain with us.” The cunning counsel was that Laban should take Leah to Jacob instead of Rachel.
In the morning, Jacob came to know that he had been deceived, and he confronted Laban about it. Laban claimed that he had done this because it was not customary in the land to give the younger daughter in marriage before the firstborn. This was a very weak reason for having deceived Jacob, for he could have told him from the beginning that the older daughter had to be married first. As Jacob had deceived Isaac at the directive of his mother Rebekah to obtain his father’s blessing, he similarly had become the victim of deception. (29:25, 26)
Laban asked that Jacob complete the bridal week with Leah and then offered to give him Rachel as his wife for an additional seven years of service. Once the week with Leah ended, Laban gave Rachel to Jacob. To be her maid, he gave her Bilhah. In Targum Jonathan, Bilhah is identified as the daughter of his concubine. The marriage with Rachel was consummated, and Jacob loved her more than her sister Leah. He continued to render service for Laban seven more years. (29:27-30)
Often, in the Scriptures, even when no direct divine intervention is involved, developments are attributed to YHWH. This is because all things are considered as taking place according to his will or his permission. In the case of Leah’s four pregnancies, no divine intervention may have been involved. Likewise, the barrenness of Rachel does not have to be regarded as having resulted from direct divine action. Instead, in view of his letting Leah become pregnant, YHWH may be considered as opening her womb because of his seeing that Leah was “hated” or loved to a far lesser degree than Rachel. (29:31)
Although Jacob was more attached to the beautiful Rachel, Leah appears to have been the wife with greater devotion to YHWH. It was Rachel, not Leah, who stole the “teraphim” or family idols from her father Laban. (31:19, 30) Leah’s expressions in connection with the birth of three of her sons reflect appreciation for what YHWH had done for her. Upon the birth of her firstborn son whom she named Reuben (“See a son”), Leah said, “YHWH has seen my affliction, for now my husband will love me.” She named her second son Simeon (“Hearing”) and said regarding him, “YHWH has heard that I am hated, and he has given me this son also.” In connection with the birth of the third son whom she named Levi (“Joined”), Leah did not mention YHWH but said, “Now this time my husband will be joined to me, for I have borne him three sons.” She named her fourth son Judah (“Lauded” or “Praised”) in gratitude to YHWH, saying, “This time I will praise YHWH.” (29:32-35)
In Antiquities (I, xix, 7), Josephus represents the words of Laban to Jacob in a more favorable light than does Targum Jonathan. “Laban promised to treat him with great humanity” not just on account of his ancestors but “particularly for the sake of his mother” Rebekah. Laban stated his purpose to make Jacob the head shepherd of his flock and to entrust him with sufficient authority to function in this position. Laban, however, was unwilling to send Rachel to be among the Canaanites and regretted that he had agreed for his sister Rebekah to have been married there.
Josephus (Antiquities, I, xix, 8) wrote that Leah attributed the birth of her firstborn son Roubelos (Reuben) to the “mercy” of God. Regarding Seme or Symeon (Simeon), Josephus said that the name signified, “God had listened to her.” The name Leuis (Levi) meant “confirmer of fellowship.” Ioudas (Judah), the name of the fourth son, denoted “thanksgiving” (or “gratitude”).
The first part of the Hebrew name “Reuben” is linked to the verb ra’ah (“see”) in Leah’s quoted expression, “YHWH has seen my affliction.” The second part of the name is linked to ye’ehabani (“will love me” [“my husband will love me”]). In Leah’s words about Simeon, the verb shamá‘ (“hear” or “listen”) forms part of her acknowledgment of God, “YHWH has heard.” Her expression regarding Levi connects his name with the verb yillaweh (“will be joined” [“my husband will be joined to me”]) The name Judah is linked to ’odeh (“I will praise” [“I will praise YHWH”).
It should be noted that Jacob did not desire to enter a polygamous marriage, but he was tricked into doing so. Sadly, the rivalry between the two sisters proved to be a source of great distress and emotional pain. To prevent problems like those that Jacob, Leah, and Rachel experienced, the law given to their descendants prohibited a man from marrying the sister of his living wife. (Leviticus 18:18)
Rachel remained barren, began to envy her sister for having given birth to four sons, and said to Jacob, “Give me sons [children (LXX)] or I shall die.” This angered Jacob, prompting him to say, “Am I in the place of God who has withheld fruit from your womb?” (30:1, 2) Targum Jonathan represents Jacob as indicating that, instead of asking him, Rachel should be making her request to God.
As a barren woman, Rachel resorted to the only option available to her to have children, and that was by having her maid Bilhah bear children for her. She gave Bilhah as a concubine to Jacob, and Bilhah became pregnant. Upon thus coming to have a son by her maid, Rachel said, “God has judged [or vindicated] me and has also heard my voice and has given me a son.” She called his name Dan, meaning “judge.” This name is linked to the verb dannani (“has judged” [“God has judged (or vindicated) me”]). (30:3-6) Josephus (Antiquities, I, xix, 8) wrote that Rachel gave Bilhah to Jakob because she feared that the “fruitfulness of her sister” would lead to her enjoying a “lesser share of Jacob’s affections.”
Bilhah gave birth to yet another son. This prompted Rachel to say that she had “wrestled with mighty wrestlings” [literally, “wrestlings of God”] with her sister and had prevailed. Josephus (Antiquities, I, xix, 8) appears to have understood this to mean that, by means of Bilhah, she conquered the “fruitfulness of her sister.” Rachel named the son Naphtali, meaning “wrestling,” “struggle,” or “contest.” This name is linked to the words naphtuley (“wrestlings”) and naphtalti (“I have wrestled”). The Septuagint rendering conveys a somewhat different meaning of the Hebrew text. “God has helped [or stood by] me. And I have had social contact [in the form of rivalry] with my sister, and I have prevailed.” (30:7, 8)
Once Leah did not become pregnant after the passage of more than the usual time between the birth of her sons, she imitated her sister and gave Jacob her maid Zilpah as a concubine. When Zilpah gave birth to a son, Leah was moved to say, “by [good] fortune” (or, according to another reading of the Hebrew text, “[good] fortune has come”), and she named the baby boy Gad (“Fortune” [good fortune]). (30:9-11)
Zilpah gave birth to another son by Jacob, and Leah was overjoyed at his birth. This prompted her to say, “In my happiness” or, according to the Septuagint, “Happy I [am].” Leah continued, “for daughters [women] will call me happy.” The name she gave to the baby boy was Asher, meaning “happy” or “fortunate.” According to Josephus (Antiquities, I, xix, 8), the name Asher could mean “bringer of happiness,” for the boy added esteem to Leah. This name is associated with the Hebrew expression be’oshri (“in my happiness”). (30:12, 13)
The wheat harvest takes place during the month of Sivan (mid-May to mid-June). At this time, mandrakes bear mature yellow or orange berries that are the size of a plumb. Leah’s firsborn son Reuben found these berries in the field and brought them to her. The Septuagint is specific in indicating that he brought the fruit of the mandrakes (“apples of mandrake [plant]”), not the entire plant or its root. It appears that Leah and Rachel believed that the berries helped a woman to become pregnant. When Rachel asked her for some mandrakes her son had brought to her, Leah objected with a question that indicated Rachel had taken away her husband (or deprived her of his love) and then also wanted to take away her son’s mandrakes. In exchange for the mandrakes, Rachel expressed her willingness for Leah to have sexual intimacy with Jacob during that night. (30:14, 15)
Upon Jacob’s arrival from his activity in the field that evening, Leah met him, telling him that he had to be with her because she had hired him with her son’s mandrakes. She shared the marriage bed with him and became pregnant. Her conception is attributed to God as the One who had listened to her. This may be regarded as indicating that God permitted Leah to conceive rather than as signifying that he intervened directly for her. Leah personally felt that she had received her “hire” from God, for she had previously given her maid Zilpah to Jacob. Although she considered the two sons that Zilpah bore as her own, Leah seemingly regarded the baby boy (her fifth son) as her very own hire or wages, for she had obtained the opportunity to have marital intimacy with Jacob in exchange for the mandrakes Reuben had brought to her. Leah named the baby Issachar, meaning “hire” or “wages.” The name Issachar is associated with the Hebrew expression sakor sekartika (“I have hired you”). (30:16-18) In his Antiquities, (I, xix, 8), Josephus identified Issachar as “one born by hire.”
Leah again became pregnant and gave birth to a sixth son to Jacob. She was moved with appreciation for what she perceived God had done for her, granting her a “good gift” in the form of a baby boy. Leah felt that, because she had borne six sons to Jacob, he would “honor” or “exalt” (but, according to another meaning of the Hebrew word, “tolerate”) her, suggesting that she would have a larger share in his kindly feelings for her. She named the baby boy Zebulun (“exalted dwelling” or “toleration”). The name of her sixth son is linked to the Hebrew expression yizbeleni (“will honor me” or “will tolerate me”). (30:19, 20) Josephus (Antiquities, I, xix, 8) understood the name Zebulun to signifiy “pledged by benevolence toward her.” Leah later also gave birth to a daughter whom she named Dinah, meaning “judged” or “vindicated.” (30:21)
Rachel’s pregnancy is represented as having resulted because God remembered her, listened to her appeals to him, and opened her womb. Although direct divine intervention may not have been involved but occurred by God’s permissive will, Rachel attributed the birth of her son to God, saying, “God has taken away my reproach” (the reproach of having been barren). She named the baby boy Joseph (“May YHWH add” [or increase] or “YHWH has added” [or increased]). The name Joseph may be linked to the verb yasáph (“add”) and possibly also ’asáph (“remove” or “take away”). (30:22-24)
After the birth of Joseph, Jacob wanted to return to the land of Canaan with his family. Based on his agreement with Laban, he had served him for fourteen years, fulfilling his obligation to him for his daughters Leah and Rachel. Therefore, he wanted Laban to release him from his service and to depart with his wives and children. It appears that Laban did not want to let Jacob depart. By means of divination, he had come to recognize that YHWH had blessed or prospered him on account of Jacob. So he wanted to keep him in his service and promised to give Jacob whatever wages he might stipulate for himself. (30:25-28)
Laban did not have much when Jacob began serving him. After reminding Laban that the flock of sheep and goats had greatly increased under his care and the blessing of YHWH, Jacob agreed to continue in the service of Laban for a portion of the flock. For this purpose, Jacob wanted to remove from the flock all speckled and spotted goats and all dark-colored sheep and thereafter to shepherd the solid-colored animals, which would have been the black goats and the white sheep. In the future, his chosen wages would be all the abnormally marked sheep and goats that the solid-colored flock produced. Laban agreed to this arrangement for wages. (30:29-34)
Based on what Jacob had said, Laban chose to remove all the streaked and spotted he-goats and all the spotted and speckled she-goats (every animal that had white markings on it) and every dark-colored sheep. To make sure that there would be no interbreeding with the abnormally marked animals that he had removed, Laban entrusted them to his sons and had them tend this flock a distance of three days’ journey away from the animals Jacob would be shepherding. Laban probably reasoned that he would enjoy the greater gain, for he likely did not think that the solid-colored animals would produce a large number of abnormally colored sheep and goats. (30:35, 36)
Like peoples in past centuries, Jacob appears to have believed in prenatal influence. For this purpose, he took saplings from a variety of trees and peeled their bark in a way that made them look striped and spotted. Jacob placed the specially peeled saplings in the troughs from which the robust goats, not the feebler ones, came to drink and then mated. This selective breeding of the stronger animals and the use of the peeled saplings seemed to work for Jacob, for the she-goats came to have streaked, speckled, and spotted young. It was, however, not the actual reason for what happened. In a dream, YHWH’s angel revealed to Jacob that the he-goats were not the solid-colored animals they appeared to be but were streaked, speckled, and spotted when it came to producing young. The selective breeding of the stronger animals meant that Jacob came to possess the more robust animals and Laban the weaker ones. Apparently Jacob sold part of his ever-increasing flocks and, with the proceeds, acquired male and female servants, camels, and donkeys. (30:37-43; 31:10-13)
In the case of the sheep, Jacob followed a different procedure but one that relied on the belief in prenatal influence. He had them face toward the streaked and dark-colored animals in Laban’s flock (apparently the animals that were produced from the original flock entrusted to him) and kept the offspring that became his wages distinctly apart from the flocks of Laban. (30:40)
In verse 3, the expression about Bilhah bearing on the knees of Rachel appears to indicate that Rachel would place the newborn baby on her lap and, by this act, adopt it as her own.
The Septuagint does not make a distinction between the animals that make up the flock (sheep and goats), and the rendering of verse 40 differs from that of the extant Hebrew text. Verse 40 says that, in front of the sheep, Jacob set a white-speckled ram and every mixed-colored (or spotted) one among the lambs.
Jacob came to know that Laban’s sons complained that he had taken everything from their father and thus had become wealthy. He also saw that Laban’s face or countenance had ceased to be what it had been toward him formerly. Jacob apparently perceived Laban’s growing hostility. The Genesis account does not reveal how Jacob later received a message from YHWH, telling him to return to the land of his “fathers” (Abraham and Isaac) and to his relatives and assuring him that he would be with him. From the field where he (doubtless with his servants and possibly also his older sons) shepherded his animals, Jacob sent a message to Rachel and Leah, requesting that they meet him there. The message may have been conveyed by one of Jacob’s servants. (31:1-4) According to Targum Jonathan, Jacob sent Naphtali, the son of Rachel’s maid Bilhah, because he was a “swift messenger” or an excellent runner. This is questionable, for Naphtali may not have been more than eight years old. According to Josephus (Antiquities, I, xix, 9), Jacob decided to make his departure secretly when Laban would not permit him to leave, but he first wanted to know what his wives thought about it.
Jacob explained to his wives that their father’s face or countenance had changed toward him in an unfavorable way and that, nevertheless, the God of his “father” (Isaac) had been with him. He reminded them that they knew of his serving their father with all his strength. Yet Laban had not dealt honestly with him. He had changed Jacob’s wages “ten times,” apparently with the intent of profiting much more than Jacob would have from his labors. The reference to “ten times” may not necessarily designate ten actual times the wages were changed but may denote repeated changes in the wages. A number of modern translations make this explicit in their renderings. “Your father has cheated me, changing my wages time and again.” (Tanakh [JPS, 1985 edition]) “He keeps cheating me by changing my wages time after time.” (CEV) To God, Jacob attributed the failure of Laban’s efforts to take advantage of him. Whenever Laban changed which animals should become Jacob’s wages, the flock produced such offspring. Based on what had happened, Jacob said to his wives that God took away from their father the animals that he gave to him. (31:5-9; regarding verse 7, see the Notes section.)
Jacob told his wives about a divinely sent dream he had in the mating season of the flock. An angel of God appeared to him, informing him that the he-goats were streaked, spotted, and mottled (not a solid color as they appeared to be). The Septuagint refers to he-goats and rams as being white-speckled and mixed-colored and ashen-colored speckled. Speaking as the direct representative of God, the angel said to Jacob, “I have seen everything Laban has been doing to you. I am the God of Bethel, where you anointed a pillar and made a vow to me. Now arise, depart from this land, and return to the land of your birth.” The Septuagint adds, “and I will be with you.” (31:10-13)
Rachel and Leah were in full agreement with Jacob’s decision to leave. In the Genesis account, both wives are represented as replying to what Jacob said, but Rachel is named first. This may explain why Targum Jonathan indicates that Rachel did the actual speaking with the consent of Leah. The quoted reply of the women reveals that, in their estimation, nothing existed for them in the household of their father. He regarded them as strangers and had used up the “silver” for which he had sold them. The “silver” or money for which he had “sold” his daughters was what he had accumulated from the fourteen years of service that Jacob had performed to have them as his wives. As far as Rachel and Leah were concerned, everything that God had taken away from their father belonged to them and to their children. (31:14-16)
With the complete support of his wives, Jacob set out for the land of Canaan to go to his father Isaac. He had his wives and his children ride on camels and, in front of him, he drove all the domestic animals he had acquired in Paddan-aram (northern Mesopotamia). At the time of the departure, Laban was away to shear his sheep. Taking advantage of his absence, Rachel stole the teraphim (“the idols” or the images of the deities [LXX]) that belonged to her father. (31:17-19) Josephus (Antiquities, I, xix, 9) wrote that Jacob had taught her to despise the worship of such deities but that her reason for stealing them was that, if her father pursued the household and seized everyone, “she might have recourse to these images in order to obtain his pardon.” A comparatively modern conjecture regarding Rachel’s theft is based on archaeological findings at Nuzi in northern Mesopotamia, indicating that owning the household idols or gods served as a legal title to the family inheritance. It could be that Rachel reasoned that, by being in possession of the idols, Jacob could claim that he had a right to a share in the inheritance of her father’s property or that he could prevent Laban from claiming that he had a right to the property Jacob had acquired for his services.
By not telling Laban what he intended to do and seizing the opportunity to depart while Laban was away, Jacob “stole the heart” of his father-in-law the “Aramean” or “Syrian” (LXX) or outwitted him (robbing him of the mental capacity to act). He made his escape with his entire household and all his property, crossed the Euphrates (literally, “the river”), and headed for the mountainous region or hill country of Gilead (literally, “the mountain of Gilead”). (31:20, 21)
On the third day after Jacob had fled, Laban came to know about it. He, accompanied by his kinsmen, went in pursuit of Jacob. For “seven” days, they pursued Jacob and caught up with him in the hill country of Gilead. Before the actual encounter with Jacob, Laban received a warning from God in a dream, telling him to be on guard not to say a “word to Jacob, either good or bad.” This warning indicated that he was to restrain himself from doing anything to Jacob. (31:22-24; see the Notes section on verse 23 regarding “seven” days.)
When he faced Jacob in the hill country of Gilead, Laban chided him for having blindsided him (literally, “stolen [his] heart” [robbed him of the mental capacity to act]) and taken away his daughters like captives of war (literally, “captives of the sword”). He claimed that, if Jacob had told him that he planned to leave, he could have arranged for a joyous celebration, sending him away with singing accompanied by tambourine and harp or lyre. Laban raised the question as to why Jacob had not permitted him to kiss his sons (grandchildren) and daughters. He maintained that Jacob had acted foolishly by departing secretly. Laban made Jacob aware that he was in a position to do him harm but was restrained from doing so because of the dream in which God warned him not to do anything to Jacob. Though acknowledging that Jacob may have been justified in wanting to leave because of longing for his “father’s house,” Laban challengingly asked, “Why did you steal my gods?” (31:23-30; see the Notes section regarding verses 28 and 29.)
Jacob replied that he feared Laban would take away his daughters (and everything belonging to him [LXX adds]) from him by force. Confident that no one had taken the household gods, Jacob said that anyone with whom Laban happened to find them should not live. Additionally, Laban should take anything that belonged to him. At the time, Jacob did not know that Rachel had stolen the gods. Laban began his search, going to Jacob’s tent, Leah’s tent, the tent of the two maidservants, but he did not find the idols. Finally, he entered Rachel’s tent. In the meantime, she had hidden the household gods in the camel’s saddle bag and seated herself on the bag. Laban searched everywhere in the tent but found nothing. Rachel asked her father’s pardon for not standing up because she was experiencing her period. (31:31-35)
After Laban had completed his search of everything, Jacob, in indignation, expressed his complaint against him. “What is my offense? What is my sin that you have chased after me?” Respecting anything Laban may have found that belonged to him, Jacob said, “Before my kinsmen and your kinsmen, set it here before them that they may decide between us two.” Continuing, Jacob defended his record of service to Laban and reproached him for having dealt deceptively with him. “These twenty years I have been with you. Your ewes and your female goats did not miscarry, and I have not eaten the rams of your flock. I did not bring to you whatever had been torn by wild beasts. I bore the loss myself. Whether [an animal] was stolen by day or by night, you required it from my hand. … By day, the heat consumed me and the cold by night. My sleep fled from my eyes.” Fourteen years Jacob had served Laban for his two daughters and six years for his flock. While serving for the flock, Laban changed his wages “ten times” or repeatedly. Jacob concluded with the words, “If the God of my father, the God of Abraham, and the Fear of Isaac [the God whom Isaac feared] had not been on my side, you indeed would have sent me away empty-handed. God saw my distress and the labor of my hands, and he rebuked you last night.” (31:36-42; regarding verse 41, see the Notes section.)
Josephus (Antiquities, I, xix, 10) worded Jacob’s grievance in even stronger terms. “Although I was your sister’s son and you had given your daughters in marriage to me, you have worn me out with your harsh commands and detained me twenty years under them. That, indeed, which was required in order to marry your daughters, hard as it was, I acknowledge to have been tolerable. But as to those [commands] that were imposed on me after these marriages, they were worse.”
Laban was unable to counter Jacob’s complaint and acknowledged his personal relationship to his daughters, their children, the flocks, and everything that Jacob had. Then he said, “What can I do this day to my daughters or to their children whom they have borne?” Laban recognized that he would have been acting against his very own if he were to harm them. Therefore, Laban wanted to conclude a covenant or make an agreement with Jacob that neither party would harm the other. (31:43, 44)
Apparently to serve as a tangible sign of the covenant they would conclude, Jacob set up a stone as a pillar and asked his kinsmen to collect stones to form a mound. This mound may have been somewhat in the form of a table that Jacob and Laban later used to eat the ceremonial meal associated with the covenant. Eating the meal signified that there would be peace between both parties. Laban called the mound or heap of stones Jegar-sahadutha (“witness mound” or “witness heap”), and Jacob named it Galeed (“witness mound” or “witness heap”). The two designations indicate that regional differences existed in the language the descendants of Abraham’s father spoke. (31:45-47)
Laban expressed himself to the effect that the mound or heap served as a witness between him and Jacob. It may be that Laban used the name Mizpah (meaning “watchtower”) for the stone Jacob had set up as a pillar. Mizpah is linked to the verb yitseph in the words attributed to Laban. “May YHWH watch (yitseph) between you and me when we are hidden from one another.” Were Jacob to mistreat Laban’s daughters or to take wives besides them (although no man was there to see it), Laban reminded him that God would be a witness between both of them. Laban then set forth the covenant obligations by which he and Jacob were to abide. “This mound [or heap] is a witness and the pillar is a witness that I will not pass over by this mound to you [to harm you], and you will not pass over by this mound and this pillar to me [to harm me]. May the God of Abraham and the god of Nahor judge between us, the gods of their father.” In the Hebrew text, the verb for “judge” is plural. This indicates that Laban differentiated between the God whom Abraham worshiped and the god whom his own grandfather Nahor worshiped. Jacob, however, swore by the “Fear of his father Isaac” (or the God whom his father Isaac revered), for Isaac had always worshiped YHWH exclusively. (31:48-53)
Jacob offered a sacrifice there on the elevated location were the stone had been erected as a pillar and the mound had been formed with collected stones. He invited his kinsmen to eat “bread” or to partake of the ceremonial meal associated with the covenant he and Laban had concluded. The meal doubtless included meat from the sacrifice. After the ceremonial meal, everyone remained at the location for the night. (31:54)
For the phrase that includes the expression “ten times,” the Septuagint conveys a meaning that may be variously understood and differs from the wording of the extant Hebrew text. In verse 7, the meaning could be that Laban changed Jacob’s wages “for ten lambs,” “by ten lambs,” or “of ten lambs.” Verse 41 could be understood as indicating that Laban falsified Jacob’s wages by ten lambs or that Laban had falsely set the wages respecting ten lambs.
The distance from the region in the vicinity of Haran to Gilead is too great for Jacob with his household and domestic animals to have completed it in ten days (three days’ head start on Laban and seven days for Laban to reach Jacob’s encampment). It would only have been possible for Jacob to have reached Gilead if Laban did not immediately leave after he learned about Jacob’s departure. If Laban and the men accompanying him rode on camels, they would have been able to catch up with Jacob in seven days. Without camels, however, it would not have been possible for them to do so at the rate of an average day’s journey of about 20 miles (c. 32 kilometers). Therefore, the literal Hebrew expression a “way of seven days” (in verse 23) possibly may be understood to be representative of a long journey (not necessarily one that can be completed in seven 24-hour days).
According to the Septuagint rendering of verse 28, Laban complained that Jacob did not consider him worthy of kissing his children (grandchildren) and his daughters.
The Septuagint (in verse 29) represents Laban as saying to Jacob, “And now my hand is strong [enough] to harm you.”
Early the next morning after having concluded a covenant with Jacob, Laban kissed his “sons” (or grandchildren) and his daughters and blessed them. He then departed with the men who had accompanied him and returned to his own place. (31:55[32:1])
With his household and domestic animals, Jacob continued on his journey, and “angels of God met him.” Upon seeing the angels, Jacob referred to them as the “camp of God” and called the location Mahanaim (“two camps”), possibly meaning the camp of angels and his own camp. In the Septuagint, the Hebrew name Mahanaim is rendered “Camps.” (32:1, 2[2, 3]) Targum Jonathan quotes Jacob as saying, “These are not the host of Esau who are coming to meet me, nor the host of Laban who have returned from pursuing me. But they are the host of holy angels.”
To prepare for a meeting with his brother Esau who was then residing in the land of Seir (a region between the Dead Sea and the Gulf of ‛Aqaba), Jacob sent messengers to inform him about his arrival. The messengers were to tell Esau that his “servant Jacob” had lived with Laban in the time that had passed but was returning with cattle, donkeys, flocks, and male and female servants. Jacob’s reason for having this message conveyed was to be expressed as follows: “I have sent to tell my lord [Esau] that I may find favor in your eyes” (or be kindly received). After meeting Esau and then returning to Jacob, the messengers reported that Esau was coming to meet him with 400 men. This frightened Jacob, as he feared that Esau was coming with so many men in order to harm him. To prepare for a violent assault, Jacob decided to divide the people and the domestic animals with him into two camps, believing that, if Esau and his men annihilated one camp, the remaining camp could escape. (32:3-8[4-9]; see the Notes section.)
Jacob turned to God, petitioning him for his help and expressing his gratitude for all that he had done for him. “O God of my father Abraham and God of my father Isaac, O YHWH you did say to me, Return to your country and to your kindred, and I will do you good. I am not deserving of all your kindness [gracious favor or steadfast love (righteousness [LXX])] and truth [faithfulness] that you have shown to your servant, for I crossed this Jordan with only my staff and now have become two camps. Deliver me please from the hand [or power] of my brother, from the hand of Esau, for I fear that he will come and slay me, [together] with mother and children. And you did say, I will do you good and make your seed [descendants] like the sand [particles] of the sea [seashore] that cannot be numbered for multitude.” (32:9-12[10-13])
After remaining overnight at the site where news from his brother Esau reached him, Jacob selected a gift for him from among his domestic animals — 200 female goats, 20 male goats, 200 ewes, 20 rams, 30 milk camels and their young, 40 cows, 10 bulls, 20 female donkeys, and 10 male donkeys. Seemingly, to make the gift appear more impressive, Jacob divided the animals into separate droves, directed that each drove be at an interval from the one that followed, and placed a servant in charge of each drove. He instructed the servants to tell Esau, upon his making inquiry about the drove, that the animals belonged to Jacob and that they were a “present to my lord Esau,” and that Jacob was behind them. It appears that Jacob did not initially consider giving a present to Esau but chose to do so when he thought that his brother was coming to harm him. This seems apparent from the desired intent of the gift — “that I may appease him with the present that precedes me [literally, is going before my face], and afterward I shall see his face. Perhaps he will accept me [literally, my face]” or forgive me for what I did to get the birthright and the blessing of our father Isaac. (32:13-20[14-21])
While the servants went on their way with the present for Esau, Jacob spent the night at the location. During the night he rose, took his two wives Rachel and Leah, the two maids Bilhah and Zilpah, and his eleven sons and his daughter Dinah, and had them ford the Jabbok. He also sent everything he possessed across the stream. While he was alone, a “man” began to wrestle with him until just before daybreak. Targum Jonathan identifies the “man” as an angel “in the likeness of a man.” The angel did not prevail over Jacob in the struggle and, therefore, touched or struck his hip (literally, the “flat [or hollow] of his hip” [LXX]) and dislocated its socket. Doubtless Jacob must have felt intense pain, but he held on to the angel. (32:21-25[22-26]) According to Hosea 12:4(5), he wept and pleaded for a blessing, suggesting that he shed tears on account of his great pain.
When the angel asked Jacob to let him go because daybreak was approaching, he replied, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.” “What is your name?” the angel asked, and he replied, “Jacob.” The angel told him that he would be called, not “Jacob,” but “Israel” (“Contender with God”), for he had “contended with God and with men” and had prevailed (“prevailed with God and been powerful with men” [LXX]). The angel did not answer Jacob’s question, “What is your name?” He simply countered with the question, “Why do you ask for my name?” The angel did, however, bless Jacob. (32:26-29[27-30])
In view of what had happened at the location, Jacob called the place Peniel or Penuel (“Face of God” [“Form of God” (LXX)]), for (in his view) he had “seen God face to face” and yet his “soul” or life had been preserved. Jacob departed from the location (Peniel or Penuel) as the sun was rising, limping because of what the angel had done to his hip. In remembrance of what their forefather had experienced, his descendants (the Israelites) did not eat the sinew of the hip of any animal (or the thigh muscle on the hip’s socket). (32:30-32[31-33])
Josephus (Antiquities, I, xx, 1) has the messengers convey Jacob’s message to Esau in a way that differed significantly from the extant Hebrew text. “Jacob had thought it wrong to live together with him while he was angered against him, and so he had left the country; and that he now, thinking the length of time of his absence must have made up the differences, was returning; that he brought with him his wives and his children, with what possessions he had obtained; and delivered himself, with what was most dear to him, into his hands; and should think it his greatest happiness to partake together with his brother what God had bestowed upon him.” Targum Jonathan has the messengers telling Esau that there was nothing in his hand or possession that included anything respecting which their father Isaac had blessed him, but that he was returning with a few cattle, donkeys, sheep, and male and female servants. The message continued, “I have sent to tell my lord [Esau] that [our father’s] blessing has not profited me so that I might find mercy in your eyes” and that you may not remain at enmity toward me on account of that blessing.
According to Targum Jonathan, the angel who wrestled with Jacob was Michael. This does not agree with the Hebrew text of verse 30, which indicates that the angel did not reveal his name to Jacob.
Jacob’s encounter with an angel may have served to show him that he was not in a fit condition to enter the land that had been promised to Abraham, Isaac, and their descendants. Through his previous maneuvering, he had purchased the birthright from his brother Esau and deceived their father to obtain the blessing that Isaac had intended for Esau. In this way, he had gained the advantage over his brother. His having to wrestle with an angel must have made him aware that God was resisting his course and must have humbled Jacob. As a result, he would not be meeting his brother as the proud Jacob who had lived up to the meaning of his name (“supplanter” or “heel grabber”) but would meet him as a humbled man who limped. The contrast would be great. Esau would be coming as a chieftain in command of 400 men, but Jacob would make his way to his brother in what would appear to be a weak physical condition.
Esau may have chosen to meet Jacob with 400 men to indicate that he had attained a position of great influence and power as a chieftain. Upon seeing his brother accompanied by 400 men, Jacob feared that he had come with hostile intent. Therefore, he divided up his children with their respective mothers, placing the two concubines with their children first or in the most vulnerable position. Leah and her children followed. Rachel and Joseph were last or in the safest location in relation to all the other members of Jacob’s family. (33:1, 2)
Jacob went ahead of his family and respectfully bowed to the ground to his older twin brother Esau, doing so seven times until he came near to him. Jacob was still limping because of his encounter with an angel, and Esau did not wait for him to make his approach but ran to meet him, embraced him, flung himself on Jacob’s neck, and kissed him. Both brothers then began to weep. (33:3, 4)
In response to Esau’s question upon seeing the women and the children, Jacob identified the children with the words, “The children whom God has graciously given to your servant.” Jacob’s concubines and their children approached and bowed down. Leah and her children likewise bowed down when they drew near. According to the Hebrew text, Joseph, who was then about six years old, is mentioned before his mother Rachel when approaching Esau and bowing down. Perhaps this is because Joseph came to have the most prominent role in the family in subsequent years. Another possibility is that he ran ahead of his mother to meet his uncle. Targum Jonathan indicates that Joseph came near and protectively stood in front of his mother. The Septuagint does not mention Joseph first but says that Rachel and Joseph drew near and bowed down. (33:5-7)
Although Jacob’s servants had informed Esau that the droves of domestic animals constituted a gift for him, he asked Jacob, “What do you mean by all this company that I met?” Jacob replied, “To find favor in the eyes of my lord.” Esau inclined not to accept the gift, saying, “I have much, my brother. Keep what you have for yourself.” Jacob, in respectful and deferential terms, urged Esau to accept the gift and persuaded him to do so. In the existing culture, refusal to accept a gift meant that a requested favor would not be granted. This explains why Jacob did not want to comply with Esau’s refusal of the gift but urged him to accept it. He, however, did not accept his brother’s offer to accompany him with his men on their journey, presenting as his reason the need for traveling at a slow pace because of the limitations of his young children and those of the domestic animals that were nursing or, according to the Septuagint, about to give birth. After Esau offered to leave some of the men with him, Jacob respectfully declined the offer. (33:8-15)
The interaction between Jacob and Esau suggests that the reconciliation was only partial. Jacob did what he could to assure that his brother would not be at enmity with him and his household. Esau appears to have made no effort to counter Jacob’s nonacceptance of any help from him and his men. After declining Esau’s offer, Jacob said that he would be traveling at the pace of his domestic animals and his children until he came to Esau, his “lord in Seir.” (33:14) There is no indication in the Genesis account that Jacob ever went to Seir or actually planned to do so. Nevertheless, the two brothers parted amicably.
Esau and the 400 men with him headed back to Seir, and Jacob came to a site that he afterward named Succoth (“booths” [“Tents” (LXX)]) because of the booths or stalls he built for his animals. At that location, he also built a home for his household. According to Targum Jonathan, Jacob stayed in Succoth for twelve months. Later he moved with his household to the vicinity of the “city of Shechem [a site about 30 miles (less than 50 kilometers) north of Jerusalem] in the land of Canaan,” possibly indicating that Succoth was not located within the actual boundaries of Canaan. Jacob purchased a piece of land for 100 silver pieces (100 lambs [LXX]) from the “sons of Hamor,” probably meaning from the descendants of Hamor. Shechem, one of the descendants of this Hamor, also had a father who was named Hamor. The Septuagint does not use the expression “sons of Hamor” but says that Jacob bought the land from Emmor (Hamor), the father of Sychem (Shechem). On the purchased land, Jacob pitched his tent and erected an altar that he called El-elohe-yisrael (“God, the God of Israel”). (33:16-20) Targum Jonathan says that Jacob gave tithes, probably meaning that he sacrificed a tenth of his sheep, goats, and cattle on the altar.
Dinah, the daughter of Jacob and Leah, went to visit the “daughters of the land,” probably meaning the young Hivite women of the city of Shechem. While she was spending time with them, Shechem, the son of the Hivite (Chorrite [LXX] or Horrite) chieftain Hamor, saw her, became infatuated with her, succeeded in getting her to be alone with him, and raped her. He became so passionately attached to Dinah that he wanted to have her as his wife. The Genesis account says that he “loved” her and “spoke to her heart” or spoke tenderly to her in a manner designed to appeal to her. Thereafter Shechem asked his father to get Dinah for him. (34:1-4)
At the time Jacob learned that Shechem had raped Dinah, his sons were away in the field with the domestic animals, and he remained silent until they arrived. (34:5) Josephus (Antiquities, I, xxi, 1) seems to have understood this to mean that Jacob did not say anything to Hamor about whether his son Shechem could marry Dinah. He wrote that Jacob did not know just “how he might deny the desire of one of such great dignity [the chieftain Hamor], and yet not thinking it lawful to give his daughter in marriage to a foreigner, entreated him to give him leave to have a consultation about what he desired him to do.”
Upon returning from their duties in the field and learning about what Shechem had done to Dinah, the sons of Jacob, especially her brothers Simeon and Levi, became very angry. They apparently concealed their wrath from Hamor when he requested that they give Dinah to his son Shechem in marriage and proposed intermarriage and a good relationship with the household of Jacob. Shechem, who was present with his father, offered to give whatever might be requested of him so that he could have Dinah as his wife. (34:6-12)
In their response, Simeon and Levi perverted the purpose of circumcision (the sign of the covenant between YHWH and the descendants of Abraham) to facilitate mass murder. The “sons of Jacob” (“Symeon [Simeon] and Livas [Levi], the brothers of Dinas [Dinah], the sons of Leias [Leah]” [LXX]) deceitfully claimed that they could not give their sister in marriage to an uncircumcised man and that, in the future, they would only give their daughters to the men of the city and intermarry if all the men got circumcised. As a young man who was passionately attached to Dinah and the most honored one in the household of Hamor, Shechem did not delay to get circumcised. (34:13-19)
In the open area at the city gate, Hamor and Shechem spoke to the men of the city, telling them that intermarriage with members of the household of Jacob would greatly contribute to their prosperity, for they could thereby come to possess all the property of Jacob’s family. The words of Hamor and Shechem persuaded the men to accept circumcision as the condition for intermarriage. Disabled by the pain of adult circumcision, the men were defenseless when, on the third day, Simeon and Levi entered the city and killed all the males with their swords. After slaying Hamor and Shechem, they took their sister Dinah out of Shechem’s house. (34:20-26)
Likely to avoid offending his non-Jewish readers, Josephus chose not to mention anything about circumcision in relation to this event. In his Antiquities, (I, xxi, 1), he stated that, while the Shechemites were in a relaxed state and feasting at the time of a festival, Simeon and Levi “fell upon the guards” of the city when they were asleep and then “slew all the males.”
While the Genesis account identifies Simeon and Levi as the sons of Jacob who murdered the males of the city, it does not specify which sons participated in the plundering of the city and its surroundings and taking the women and children captive. Jacob’s reproof was directed to Simeon and Levi. “You have brought trouble on me by making me a stench to the inhabitants of the land — the Canaanites and the Perizzites.” He feared that the native population would assemble against him and annihilate him and his household, for the members of his household were few when compared to those who could launch an attack. Simeon and Levi did not take their father’s words seriously but justified what they had done, saying, “Should one treat our sister like a prostitute?” (34:27-31)
At the time Simeon and Levi slew the men in the city of Shechem, they must have been only teenagers. When Jacob returned to the land of Canaan with his household, the oldest son Reuben would have been about twelve, Simeon about eleven, and Levi about ten, and the youngest son Joseph about six. (29:18-34; 30:22-25; 31:41) Joseph’s half brothers sold him into slavery when he was seventeen years old, and Levi would have been about twenty-one years of age. A significant amount of time passed between the time Simeon and Levi killed the men of Shechem and the sale of Joseph. This is evident from the fact that Joseph’s half brothers had no concern about tending flocks in the vicinity of Shechem. (37:2, 12, 25-28)
The Genesis account does not mention how Jacob received a message from God, telling him to go to Bethel and to reside at that location. He was also instructed to erect an altar at Bethel, there where God had appeared to him when he was fleeing from his brother Esau. Before undertaking the journey to Bethel, Jacob directed everyone in his household to remove the foreign deities or idols in their possession, to purify themselves (probably by washing or bathing), and to clothe themselves with clean garments. Regarding the altar he would be erecting, Jacob said that it would be to the God who had answered him in the day of his distress and had been with him wherever he had gone. The Septuagint quotes Jacob as saying, “Let us erect an altar there to the God who heard me in a day of distress [and] who was with me and preserved [my life] on the way that I traveled.” (35:1-3)
The members of Jacob’s household, which included male and female servants, gave him all their foreign gods or idols and their earrings. According to Josephus (Antiquities, I, xxi, 2), Jacob then discovered Laban’s “gods” that Rachel, unbeknownst to him, had stolen. Targum Jonathan indicates that the idols and the rings were part of the spoils that Jacob’s sons had taken from the city of Shechem and that the ornaments portrayed the likeness of images. It is not unlikely that the servants of Jacob brought idols with them when leaving Haran and that many more items associated with idolatry came into Jacob’s household through his sons’ plundering. Jacob buried all the idols and the rings under a tree (a terebinth [LXX]) near Shechem. The Septuagint adds that “he destroyed [the items] to the present day.” (35:4)
On their way from the vicinity of Shechem to Bethel, none of the native inhabitants of the region initiated an attack against the household of Jacob on account of the murderous action his sons Simeon and Levi had undertaken against the men of Shechem. The reason for their safe passage through the land is attributed to the “terror of God” that had fallen upon the residents of the surrounding cities. Without anyone pursuing them, Jacob and his household arrived at Luz (Luza [LXX], the fomer name of Bethel [Baithel, LXX]), a place about 11 miles (c. 17 kilometers) from ancient Salem or Jerusalem. As he had been divinely commanded, Jacob erected an altar and called it El-bethel (the “God of Bethel”), for it had been there that God revealed himself to him when he was fleeing from his brother Esau. (35:5-7)
The context does not make it possible to determine when Deborah (meaning “bee”) became part of Jacob’s household. Initially, she was Rebekah’s nurse, probably acting as a substitute for Rebekah’s mother in breastfeeding her as an infant. In later years, Deborah doubtless assisted her in caring for the twins Esau and Jacob. Josephus wrote that Jacob went to Hebron, where he saw his father Isaac and thereafter stayed with him a short time. His mother Rebekah was no longer alive. (Antiquities, I, xxii, 1) If this was the case, Deborah then may have become a member of Jacob’s household. She would have been of great assistance to Jacob’s wife Leah who, after the death of her sister Rachel, likely looked after Benjamin and his brother Joseph, besides her own young sons Issachar and Zebulun and her daughter Dinah. Subsequent to the death of Rachel, Leah appears to have been regarded as the mother of her sister’s children. This seems to be evident from Jacob’s apparent reference to Leah as the mother of Joseph. (37:9, 10) The comments in Targum Jonathan indicate that Deborah was in the household of Jacob prior to the death of his mother and could indicate that Rebekah herself had sent Deborah to share in caring for Jacob’s young children. “Deborah, the nurse of Rivekah [Rebekah], died, and was buried below Bethel, in the field of the plain. And there it was told Jakob [Jacob] concerning the death of Rivekah [Rebekah] his mother; and he called the name of it, The other weeping.” The Hebrew text and the Septuagint, however, are in agreement that the reference is only to the death of Deborah. The tree underneath of which she was buried was called Allon-bacuth (“oak of mourning” or weeping [LXX]). (35:8)
When Jacob was fleeing from his brother Esau and arrived near the site that was later designated as Bethel (“House of God”), he had a dream by means of which he received God’s reassuring message. Again, at the same location, God appeared to him, restating his purpose respecting him and his descendants. After reconfirming the name change from Jacob to Israel, God said to Jacob, “I am God Almighty [I am your God (LXX)]. Be fruitful and increase. A nation, even a company of nations, will come from you, and kings will issue from your loins. To you and your seed after you, I will give the land that I gave to Abraham and Isaac.” In the centuries that passed, the offspring of the sons of Jacob became distinct tribes, and this may be how the reference to a “company of nations” is to be understood. It is also possible that the reference is to the two separate kingdoms that came into being (the kingdom of Israel and the kingdom of Judah). The land of Canaan had been given to Abraham and Isaac in the sense that their descendants were certain to inherit it. (35:9-12)
In the place where he had spoken with Jacob, God is represented as going up from him. This could denote that YHWH’s representative angel appeared to Jacob and then ascended, disappearing from his sight. To memorialize the noteworthy event, Jacob set up a pillar and poured out a libation and poured out oil (olive oil) upon it. According to Targum Jonathan, he poured out a libation of wine and a libation of water. As at the time of his fleeing from his brother Esau, Jacob again called the place Bethel (“House of God”), for God had communicated with him there. (28:11-19; 35:13-15)
On the way from Bethel to Ephrath (Bethlehem), Rachel died giving birth to a baby boy. As she was dying (literally, “her soul” or life was departing), Rachel called the name of her son Ben-oni (“son of my sorrow” or “my mourning”), but Jacob named the boy Benjamin (“son of the right hand” or “son of the south”). The designation “son of the right hand” could be an indication that Benjamin would be a supporter and helper of his father. At the place where Rachel died, Jacob set up a pillar over the plot where he had buried her. To the very day or time that the Genesis account came to be in its final written form, this pillar marked Rachel’s grave. (35:16-20)
With his household, Israel (Jacob) continued the journey and then pitched his tent at a site beyond Migdal-eder (tower of Eder), somewhere between Bethlehem and Hebron. While he and his household resided in the area, Reuben violated his father’s concubine Bilhah who had been Rachel’s maid and was the mother of his half brothers Dan and Naphtali. At the time, Reuben may have been in his late teens or around 20 years of age. He rashly may have engaged in this incestuous act to prevent Bilhah from replacing deceased Rachel in his father’s affection. Israel (Jacob) heard what had happened but appears not to have taken any punitive action. He did not, however, forget Reuben’s serious sin, recalling it shortly before his death and expressing the resultant judgment. Regarding what Reuben did, the Septuagint does add the following comment about Jacob, “it appeared evil before him [or in his sight].” (35:21, 22; 49:3, 4)
Leah gave birth to six sons (Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah, Issachar and Zebulun) and one daughter (Dinah) in seven years. (29:32-35, 30:18-21) It is known that breastfeeding women can become pregnant in six weeks after the birth of a baby. So it would have been possible for Leah to have had four sons in 41 months. Through her maid Bilhah, Rachel had two sons (Dan and Naphtali), perhaps in nineteen months and two weeks. While Bilhah was pregnant with her second son and a significant amount of time before his birth, Leah’s maid Zilpah may have been pregnant with Gad and about ten and a half months after he was born may have given birth to Asher. Leah herself, after about a year following the birth of her fourth son Judah, could have become pregnant before the birth of Asher and become the mother of Issachar, Zebulun, and Dinah in 30 months. The last baby boy to be born in Paddan-aram was Joseph, the son of Rachel. Although Benjamin was born in the land of Canaan, he is numbered among the sons born in Paddan-aram. This may be because Benjamin was simply grouped with the other sons of Jacob, all of whom were born in upper Mesopotamia. (35:23-26)
Sometime after the entire household had departed from Bethel, Jacob and his family came to his father Isaac, who was then living at Mamre or Kiriath-arba (Hebron). At that location both Abraham and Isaac had lived, and it was in that vicinity where Abraham and Sarah were buried. Isaac lived about 23 years after Jacob returned with his household to the land of Canaan and died when he was 180 years old. Although not mentioned in the Genesis account, Jacob may have visited his father at other times prior to his arrival from Bethel, for it does not seem reasonable that he let years pass before arranging to see his father. When Isaac “was gathered to his people” or joined his relatives in the realm of the dead, Jacob and Esau were present and buried their father. This indicates that communication between the two brothers continued after Jacob’s departure from Paddan-aram and his return to the land of Canaan. (35:27-29)