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The Oxford History of the Biblical World An in-depth chaptered work by leading scholars providing a chronological overview of the history of biblical times.

The Narratives of Genesis 12–50

The ancestral tales of Genesis 12–50 depict four generations of pastoralists whose primary grazing lands lay in the land of Canaan. The story begins in Genesis 11.27–29 by introducing Abraham and his wife Sarah (who are called Abram and Sarai in the early chapters). Genesis 11.29 introduces a serious problem for the couple, whose solution forms a major theme of the Abraham/Sarah cycle: Sarah is infertile. The first action of the cycle, Genesis 12.1–7 , presents the overarching theme, not only of the Abraham cycle, but also of the entire narrative that stretches from Genesis through the book of Joshua. In this passage, God calls Abraham to migrate to Canaan and makes two critical promises to him: that Abraham's descendants will become a great nation, and that God will give them the land of Canaan as their own. The fulfillment of these promises is the primary strand unifying the entire epic of Israel's origins.

Most of the narratives about Abraham and Sarah's adventures in Canaan (Gen. 12–25 ) are related to one or the other of God's promises. In several cases the characters' own actions place the fulfillment of the promises in jeopardy. For example, in one story (Gen. 12.10–20 ) Sarah, who is destined to be the mother of the child through whom Israel will arise, is taken into the harem of the Egyptian pharaoh, and Abraham nearly loses her. But God intervenes and returns Sarah to her husband. In Genesis 13 , a threat to the promise of the land arises when Abraham and his nephew Lot come in conflict over where they are going to pasture their enormous flocks. Abraham allows Lot to choose which part of the land he wishes to take. Were Lot to select the area of Canaan that God had pledged to Abraham, the promise would be void. Lot, however, prefers the land east of the Jordan River to the region that will eventually become Israel.

The birth of the promised heir also falls into doubt. As Abraham and Sarah age and Sarah remains childless, she gives her husband her maidservant Hagar as a surrogate wife to bear a child. But this son, Ishmael, is not the child of the promise. Finally, Sarah, at the advanced age of ninety, conceives and gives birth to Isaac, the divinely designated heir.

Few traditions about Isaac are preserved in the narratives. Most of the stories of Isaac present him as a character secondary to the main protagonists, who are either his father, Abraham, or his sons, Jacob and Esau. The only narratives in which Isaac does play the primary role (Gen. 26 ) virtually duplicate stories told earlier about Abraham. For the most part these quasi-reruns reiterate themes found in the Abraham cycle.

Isaac and his wife Rebekah have twin sons, Jacob and Esau. The brothers are intense rivals. Jacob, the younger, usually gets the best of the dull-witted Esau, tricking him into selling his birthright (Gen. 25.29–34 ) and stealing his firstborn's blessing from their blind father ( 27.1–40 ). Eventually Jacob must flee to avoid the anger of Esau, and so he sets out for Haran in northern Syria. There he meets his extended family and marries his uncle's two daughters, Leah and Rachel (Gen. 29 ).

Although portraying Abraham as the ultimate father of Israel, the tradition reserves to Jacob the honor of giving the nation its name and its twelvefold tribal makeup. There are, in fact, two stories in which God changes Jacob's name to Israel (Gen. 32.22–32 and 35.9–15 ), and, in Genesis 29.31–30.24 and 35.16–18 , Jacob sires twelve sons, who become the eponymous ancestors of the twelve tribes of Israel.

Beginning in Genesis 37 , the focus of the story shifts to the sons of Jacob/Israel, and especially to Joseph, the beloved son by Rachel. But more than just the subject is changed; there is a noticeable difference in the literary and thematic style of the Joseph story compared to the preceding narratives. Whereas the stories of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob are made up of loosely connected episodes, often independent of one another, the Joseph story is intricately plotted and complex. With the exception of the story of Judah and Tamar in Genesis 38 (clearly an intrusion), no episode between chapters 37 and 45 can be dropped easily without creating a hole in the plot. Here we have a finely crafted narrative with detailed plot and character development, the story of how Joseph was sold into Egyptian slavery by his jealous brothers, only to rise to high position in the government of the pharaoh. When a famine strikes Canaan, Joseph, after testing whether his brothers have matured over the twenty years since they sold him, brings his entire family to Egypt and settles them in the eastern Nile Delta.

All these ancestral narratives act as a prologue to the epic story of Israel's emergence as a nation that begins in the book of Exodus. God's two promises, that he would make the descendants of Abraham a great nation and that he would give them the land of Canaan, move toward fulfillment in the books of Exodus through Joshua.

There are many reasons to be skeptical of these narratives as historically accurate accounts of the lives of Israel's progenitors. Indications within the narratives suggest that they had a substantial prehistory as oral literature. Modern studies of oral transmission demonstrate that stories preserved in this manner do not primarily serve a historical or antiquarian purpose; rather, they are meant to present cultural values that must be passed on to younger generations. In modern parlance, their function is sociological rather than historical. Usually, historical facts quickly become garbled in an oral tradition, which adapts such information to make whatever point the story is intended to convey. Events and characters are often manufactured for the narrative purposes, and variant versions of a single story develop alongside one another.

Several of these characteristics appear in the book of Genesis. A number of stories occur in duplicate or variant versions. Thus there are two accounts of God changing Jacob's name to Israel (Gen. 32.28 and 35.10 ), two of the naming of the well called Beer-sheba (Gen. 21.31 and 26.33 ), and two of the naming of the town of Bethel (Gen. 28.19 and 35.15 ). In three different stories (Gen. 12.10–20; 20; 26.6–11 ) the patriarch (twice Abraham and once Isaac) tries to pass off his wife as his sister.

This repetition of stories, along with a recognition of more than one literary style, has suggested to most scholars that the current text of Genesis (and of Exodus through Numbers) has been spliced together from multiple literary sources. Three primary documents have been identified as the foundations of the final text of Genesis. Because they are anonymous, these sources are named according to notable characteristics. Scholars call the earliest the Yahwist source (abbreviated as J, following the German spelling of the divine name Yahweh [Jahweh]) because it characteristically uses the name Yahweh (traditionally rendered “The LORD”) for God throughout the book of Genesis; in contrast, the two other sources avoid that name until it is revealed to Moses in the book of Exodus. Although most scholars would date this version of the origins of Israel to the tenth century BCE, others have recently argued for a date as late as the sixth century BCE. The second source is usually called the Elohist source (abbreviated E) because it regularly uses the Hebrew word 'elohim (“God”) as its title for Israel's deity. It is much more fragmentarily preserved in the biblical text, apparently edited into the J version only as a supplement, and is often dated to the ninth/eighth centuries BCE. The third source is called the Priestly document (abbreviated P) for its many priestly concerns. It is generally considered the latest of the sources (sixth century BCE), although it preserves considerable material that can be identified as much older.

Scholars have also observed a number of anachronisms in the stories, another characteristic of oral literature. For example, in Genesis 20 and 26 , the king of Gerar is identified as a Philistine ruler. But the Philistines did not occupy the coast of Canaan until the twelfth century BCE, long after the events connected with him. Camel caravans are mentioned in Genesis 26 and 37 , but camels were probably not used in this way before the beginning of the Iron Age (1200 BCE), when Israel was already emerging as a nation.

In addition, major elements of the stories can be shown to be artificial by comparing evidence drawn from other parts of the biblical text, as well as from archaeological discoveries. Take, for example, the idea that all of Israel descended from the twelve sons of Jacob. The book of Judges preserves an ancient poem from the late second millennium, usually called the Song of Deborah (Judg. 5.2–31 ), in a section of which the poet honors those tribes of Israel that joined in battle against a Canaanite coalition and castigates those that held back. Only ten tribes are named, and two of these are not tribes that occur in the canonical list of twelve. Apparently the twelve tribes did not unify as a political entity until the eleventh century, and when a tribe joined the confederation, the tribal name was personalized and the eponym placed in the list of the sons of Jacob/Israel. The other stories about the national origins of Israel's neighbors (that the Edomites descended from Esau, the Ammonites and Moabites from the offspring of Lot and his two daughters, and so forth) are likewise artificial, and were designed to indicate first-millennium political relationships rather than historical ancestry.

Accurate historical documentation was thus not a defining element in the development and transmission of these stories. Any attempt to make use of this material in reconstructing the prehistory of Israel requires great caution. There are, however, fascinating hints that suggest that genuine memories from the pre- and proto-Israelite periods survive in these stories. For example, the names of the characters in the ancestral narratives seem to be genuinely ancient. They are not names that were popular or characteristic in Israel during the Iron Age (1200–586 BCE), when the nation took shape and its oral tradition was first written down. Most of Israel's personal names incorporate some form of the divine name Yahweh, but not a single name in the ancestral stories does. This is particularly significant because two streams of the traditions, the Priestly source and the Elohist, insist that the name Yahweh was not known before the time of Moses, that is, before the emergence of Israel. The large number of non-Yahwistic names in the narratives suggests, then, that the ancestral names reflect a genuine pre-Israelite and pre-Yahwistic tradition.

Additionally, some of the stories seem to preserve descriptions of social and legal customs not characteristic of the later period of Israel's existence. For example, Abraham plants a sacred tamarisk tree at Beer-sheba (Gen. 21.33 ), and Jacob sets up a standing stone at Bethel ( 28.18–22 ); both practices would be prohibited in later Israel (see Exod. 34.13; Deut. 7.5; 12.2–4 ). Jacob marries both of Laban's daughters, Leah and Rachel (Gen. 29.16–30 ), without any issue being made of the situation, even though later Israel forbade marrying two sisters (Lev. 18.18 ).

One of the most significant elements from the protohistorical period found in these stories is their preservation of aspects of ancestral religion. Although the narratives presuppose that the religion of the ancestors and that of later Israel were the same, several aspects of proto-Israel's religion as recorded in Genesis differ significantly from Israel's religion as depicted in the rest of the Bible. We will return to this important subject at the end of this chapter.

But whatever the genuine memories that they preserve, the ancestral stories provide modern historians with few data to reconstruct the historical, cultural, and sociological developments from which eventually the Israelite nation arose. None of the names or events described in Genesis 12–50 appear in any other Near Eastern documents; none of the kings (several of whom are named) or pharaohs (who are never named) can be identified from outside sources. No specific date is provided for any of the characters in the narrative. And, not surprisingly, never do the stories attempt to see the actions of the ancestors from a wider political or cultural perspective. Because of this, a modern account of the history of this region during the second millennium BCE virtually never intersects with the stories of the ancestors in Genesis.

To understand the background of Israel's rise and the cultures that preceded it in the land, we must leave the Bible. Our primary sources instead must be the archaeologists' discoveries of material remains and inscriptions from sites across the Near East, especially those in Syria-Palestine. These finds have made it possible to reconstruct with some certainty the complicated but fascinating history of this region.

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