Genealogy, Politics and History
in the Book of Genesis
William S. Abruzzi
In order to adopt a systemic approach to the study of warfare, it is necessary, in part, to understand that all societies evolve emic rationalizations and explanations for their involvement in conflict and warfare. Furthermore, it is also necessary to understand that those rationalizations serve to justify and legitimize a particular group's actions. Americans, for example, ennoble the North's involvement in the Civil War by making it a cause to end slavery, while many Southerners legitimize the South's involvement in the war by presenting it as a war to defend states' rights. Consequently, while the North refers to the war between the states as the "Civil War", the South refers to it as the "War of Northern Aggression." The version of the war that has prevailed nationally and officially is the Northern version, because it was the North that won the war. As Elaine Pagels has stated in The Gnostic Gospels, "It is the winners who write history--their way." The same may be said of World War I, World War II and the Korean War. It is the victors version of the war that is taught in our schools and that most people learn. Many Americans are angered that the Japanese teach a very different version of World War II in their schools than is taught in the U.S. The Japanese version, of course, does not portray them as the villains of the war, as does the American version.
The evolution of self-serving rationalizations for war and ethnic conflict are universal. Israelis rationalize their incursions into Palestine and Palestinians justify the bombing of civilians. In the same way, Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland, Hindus and Muslims in South Asia and the Hutu and Tutsi in Rwanda evolve versions of their respective political situations which serve to legitimize their participation in acts of violence. From a Cultural Materialist perspective, certain beliefs held by a particular group of people (Superstructure) serve to legitimize the actions of those people towards another group (Structure). Since most of the discussion of specific conflicts focuses on the Superstructural rationalizations for the conflict, rather than on the underlying Infrastructural causes of such conflicts, the conflicts largely persist. This is as true of contemporary international conflicts as it is of Yanomamo warfare or was of Plains Indians warfare in the last century.
As conflicts persist over time, rationalizations and justifications become embedded in a particular group's interpretation of its history, most notably in its mythology. American political expansion has been variously legitimized in our popular debates, and even in our educational systems, in terms of "Manifest Destiny" "conquering the frontier" and "defending freedom around the world". Similarly, the Yanomamo explain their warfare and violence through the retelling of the "Moonblood" myth in which the Moon is shot with an arrow. When the Moon's blood falls to the earth and hits the ground, the drops become individual Yanomamo, explaining why the Yanomamo are fierce and warlike. The learning and passing on of these stories is part of the process that anthropologists call enculturation.
One of the more interesting examples of the way in which the rationalization of a particular group's political relations with other groups has become incorporated within its mythology is contained within Genesis, the first book of the Hebrew and Christian Bibles. Portions of the genealogy set forth in Genesis can best be understood as a political statement by the ancient Israelites rationalizing and justifying their warfare with and conquest of neighboring peoples. In order to properly examine the genealogy of Genesis from an anthropological perspective, certain key concepts need to be understood. These are: kinship, genealogy and myth.
Kinship Kinship is the central organizing principle of pre-industrial societies. It is a belief system (Superstructure) that defines each individual's social relationship to every other individual. Most importantly, it is an alliance ideology that defines both an individual and group's rights and obligations towards other individuals and groups. It defines the rights and obligations of individuals to other individuals within the lineage, clan or tribe. It also defines the individual's obligation to the lineage, clan or tribe as a whole, especially in situations that involve conflict between the lineage, clan or tribe with outsiders. Conversely, kinship defines the rights and obligations of the lineage, clan or tribe as a whole towards a specific individual. The relation among groups is simply an extension of the kinship relation among individuals.
The specific form of kinship discussed above is referred to by anthropologists as a Segmentary Lineage System (see Figure 1). This form of social organization is characteristic of pastoral nomads, people who live by herding sheep, goats cattle, camels and/or any other animals that they depend upon for subsistence. It is characteristic of such diverse peoples as the Fulani of West Africa, the Somali of the Horn of Africa and the Bedouin of Arabia. It was also practiced by the ancient Israelites before the Kingdom of Israel emerged under the rule of David and Solomon. Each minimal lineage represents the basic kinship unit within which individuals live and function. Individuals only come together as members of a larger unit when circumstances require it. Members of lineage "a" herd their animals independently of lineages "b", "c", etc. It is when the members of different minimal lineages need to coordinate their herding practices that their membership in maximal lineages, clans or tribes becomes important. Their membership at higher levels of kinship also becomes important in the event of political conflict and warfare. Members of lineage "a" will be expected to support members of lineage "b" against members of lineage "c" or "d" because the members of lineages "a" and "b" all belong to maximal lineage "1". Alliances among minimal lineages moves up and down the kinship system depending upon which minimal lineages are in conflict, and when a conflict occurs between a member of any one of these minimal lineages and an outsider, the conflict becomes a conflict between all the members of all the minimal lineages as members of Tribe "I" against the outsider.
Segmentary Lineage System
Genealogy The Genealogy of a kinship-based society must be viewed, not as an accurate account of the biological relations among individuals within the group, but rather as a political charter. A people's genealogy defines the prevailing sociopolitical relations which exist in that society. As those political relations change, so also does the genealogy. As the Nuer of the southern Sudan in Africa expanded against the Dinka to the south of them (see Map 1), the subordinate Dinka married into the dominant Nuer lineages. As a result, those former Dinka subsequently traced their descent to Nuer ancestors and their Dinka ancestry became lost.
Similarly, whole lineages of Galla cattle herders have been absorbed into Somali clans in Ethiopia as the Somali expanded into Galla territory over the past several centuries (see Map 2).
Somali Expansion in the Horn of Africa
And many Pueblo Indians in New Mexico, likewise, became absorbed into the dominant Spanish-speaking population that had conquered that region (see Map 3). As a result largely of intermarriage, the Pueblo population in New Mexico declined from around 50,000 to about 10,000 between 1700-1850, while the Hispanic population increased from little more than 2,000 to over 70,000.
Spanish Expansion in New Mexico
The further back in time that a people trace their ancestry, the more mythical become their reputed ancestors. A point is eventually reached where the ancestors becomes eponymous, that is, a mythical embodiment of the people themselves. An eponymous ancestor can be a person, an animal or even an inanimate object. In their mythical tales, the qualities and activities of the eponymous ancestor mirror those that the people attribute to themselves. Myths which describe great feats performed by an ancestor serve to embellish the reputation of a people and their history. Similarly, myths which recount how the eponymous ancestor of one people defeated the eponymous ancestor of another people in battle may reflect the existence of a historical and/or contemporary conflict between the two groups represented by the eponymous ancestors. Similarly, because a people's eponymous ancestor represents them in mythology, stories in other people's mythology which curse that ancestor or which portray the ancestor in an unflattering way serve to denigrate the people represented by the ancestor. As we would expect, such myths are quite common among peoples engaged in conflict with one another. Israel, Canaan, Ammon, Edom, Moab, and Ishmael are just a few of the eponymous ancestors whose actions are recounted in Genesis.
Myth Myths are stories about the past which justify, explain or rationalize the present and which teach a moral lesson. It is because myths are generally linked to sacred (frequently ancestral) beings that form part of the religious tradition of a society that myths gain an element of sanctity which further justifies their moral message. The story of George Washington chopping down the cherry tree promotes the values of truth and honesty more than if the protagonist in the story were just someone living in the neighborhood. In the same way, the biblical story of Adam, Eve and the apple reinforces the importance of obedience to God, while the Book of Job teaches about the rewards that accrue to those who submit to God's authority. Similarly, the Hymn of Rigveda, which recounts how the four Hindu varnas (castes) were created from the body of the slain Perusa, rationalize and justify the inequality which exists in Hindu society.
The Book of Genesis was a sacred document to the ancient Israelites, as it is today to many Jews, Christians and Muslims (all three are referred to as "People of the Book"). It describes how order in the world was established by the Israelite god, Yahweh, and by the men laboring under a covenant with Yahweh. As with the myths of other peoples, through its description of historical events, Genesis presents a mythologized history of the Israelites which teaches specific moral lessons regarding correct forms of social behavior. From an anthropological perspective, some of the stories and genealogical connections presented in Genesis can also be seen as explaining, rationalizing and legitimizing Israelite political history, in particular its relations with neighboring peoples.
Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers & Deuteronomy) comprise the initial five books of the Hebrew Bible and are together known as the Torah (Pentateuch). These books are generally considered by biblical scholars to have taken their final form during and after the Babylonian Captivity (587 – 538 BCE) by those Israelite leaders who had been taken from Jerusalem to Babylon. They likely undertook to compile their many oral stories into a coherent written document as a way of preserving their national identity and heritage while they were being held captive in a foreign land with its non-Israelite influences. Babylon was the leading city of the ancient world at that time, and the ancient Hebrews lived in Babylon for 50 years, or about two generations. This was sufficient time for the Israelites to assimilate many Babylonian concepts and ideas into their own way of thinking. Many stories of Babylonian origin can be found in the Bible. The biblical flood story, for example, finds its origin in a well-known Babylonian flood story. The Babylonian flood story was contained within the Epic of Gilgamesh, the major Babylonian epic which dates to around 2,000BCE (1,500 years before the Bible was written). But the Babylonian flood story was not original; it derives from the Story of Ziusudra, a Sumerian flood story that dates to 3,500BCE (3,000 years before the Bible was written). Ziusudra was a Sumerian king whom the gods asked to build an ark in order to save the animals from extinction in a great flood that they planned to unleash on the earth. As a reward for his obedience, the gods made Ziusudra a god like themselves. The Epic of Gilgamesh also contains a story in which a serpent tempts Gilgamesh and successfully deprives him of eternal youth. This story which presages the Garden of Eden story, also finds parallels in an earlier Sumerian myth.
Indeed, numerous stories traveled for many centuries throughout the Fertile Crescent which were borrowed and modified by various peoples, including the ancient Israelites, to accommodate their own particular world view. (For a fascinating book which looks at the Sumerian origins of many stories in the ancient world, see Samuel Noah Kramer's History Begins at Sumer.) Had the ancient Israelites not been removed to Babylon, the flood story (and other Babylonian parallels) might never have become part of the Bible. The ancient Israelites, like the other peoples who borrowed the Sumerian flood story, modified the story to fit their particular circumstances. Noah, for example, was not made into a god, as was Ziusudra. This would have contradicted the fundamental monotheism of the Bible. Instead, Noah was raised to the highest position one can occupy in a genealogically-organized society: as a result of the flood, he becomes the ancestor of all living humans.
However, there are several passages in the Bible which some scholars suggest may betray an earlier polytheism among the Israelites. During the creation of man, God said: "Let us make man in our image, after our likeness" (Gen.1:26). Later, when Adam and Eve ate of the forbidden fruit, God said: "Behold, the man is become as one of us, to know good and evil" (Gen.3:22). Finally, in the Tower of Babel story, God said: "Go to, let us go down, and there confound their language, that they may not understand one another's speech." (Gen.11:7). Certainly, other interpretations can be given for the use of the plural nouns in these passages, but translating "us" and "our" to refer to multiple gods is not without merit. Polytheistic beliefs were prevalent throughout the ancient world, and the ancient Israelites sometimes strayed from their singular worship of Yahweh (witness the story of the Golden Calf). Similarly, some biblical scholars view those passages in the Hebrew Bible that refer to meetings of a heavenly council ("heavenly host") as assemblies of various deities called by Yahweh, the High God, for either consultation or rebuke (see, for example, 1 Kings 22; Isaiah 40; Psalm 82 and Job 1) [J. Sanders, Bible Review, June 2003:6]. We need to remember that it was the fiercely monotheistic Yahwists who eventually wrote and edited the Bible; so it was their view that ultimately prevailed (as suggested by Pagels' quote presented above). It is, therefore, not unreasonable to view the above passages as reflecting a remnant polytheism among the ancient Israelites, especially when the very Hebrew word for God, Elohim, is itself a plural word form (Hebrew words that end in "im" are plural. For example, the plural of kibbutz is kibbutzim.)
According to the Hebrew Bible, The ancient Israelites, after years of persecution and slavery in Egypt, fled that land under the leadership of Moses, invaded Canaan and conquered its inhabitants as a united people under the leadership of Joshua and eventually established a United Monarchy [consisting of the former northern and southern kingdoms] under David and Solomon. Modern scholars, however, largely refute these claims, arguing that they are not supported by the archaeological evidence (c.f., Israel Finkelstein and Neil Asher Silberman, The Bible Unearthed). While many archaeological finds were seen in the past as validating the Bible, these claims were often based on circular reasoning. When discoveries were made, the Bible was used to interpret the finds. However, if you use the Bible to interpret specific finds, those finds, by definition, validate the Bible. A new generation of biblical archaeologists has emerged that no longer use the Bible to validate archaeological discoveries, but rather rely on the same scientific methods applied by archaeologist working in other parts of the world. The result has been a radical revolution in our understanding of the history and prehistory of ancient Israel/Palestine.
With regard to the Exodus, for example, there is no archaeological evidence of a large slave population of Hebrews in Egypt. Nor is there any mention of this in the massive volumes of Egyptian records. Furthermore, along the entire route of the exodus out of Egypt an escaping population of Israelites would have encountered numerous Egyptian military fortifications all the way into Canaan, as this entire region was under Egyptian control. In addition, while archaeological excavations have uncovered artifact remains in the Sinai region from earlier and later time periods, not a single potsherd has been found there that can be attributed to the time of the Exodus. Also, the Bible states that over 400,000 people took part in the Exodus. Our knowledge of the ecology of that region shows that the environment of Sinai simply could not have supported that many people, especially for the forty years they were supposed to have resided in that region. There are also Egyptian records, including the famous Merneptah Stele dated to the end of the 13th century BCE [a century before the Exodus is supposed to have occurred] which suggest that the Israelites already existed in Canaan. This stele describes Merneptah's military campaign into Canaan during which a people named Israel were so completely decimated that the pharaoh boasted that Israel's "seed is not". The growing consensus today among archaeologists is that the Israelites were an indigenous tribal people who had lived in the highlands of Canaan for centuries before the Exodus was supposed to have taken place, who never lived in Egypt in large numbers as suggested by the Bible, and who began to emerge politically during the 10th century BCE at the earliest.
There is, likewise, no actual archaeological evidence for the existence of either David or Solomon, except for one inscription discovered at Tel Dan in northern Israel recording the victory of the Aramean King Hazael over the king of Israel and the king of the "house of David" in the 9th century BCE. That's all there is. No palaces or temple that can be attributed to either David or Solomon have ever been discovered, not even a single potsherd bearing either king's name. In fact, at the time when David and Solomon are supposed to have existed, Jerusalem (using standard archaeological methods of estimating population size) was likely at most a couple thousand people --about the size of a Pueblo Indian village in northern New Mexico. Clearly, a village so small could not have been the capitol of a great empire stretching over the entire land of Canaan. There is also no archaeological evidence for the kind of wealth described in the Bible and that would have been needed to run an empire, maintain vast armies and support the elaborate lifestyle attributed to Solomon. At best, the Kingdom of Judah, such archaeologists claim, would have had a chiefdom level of political organization, the same type [as would be expected according to anthropological theory] found among the various Pueblo Indians. There is, thus, no evidence outside the Bible to support the existence of a United Kingdom of Israel encompassing the northern and southern kingdoms. All the evidence suggests that these two kingdoms remained separate and hostile throughout their existence and were only united when conquered and ruled over by foreign powers.
Significantly, according to several contemporary scholars, most of the stories of the Exodus and conquest of Canaan can be traced to the seventh century BCE [several centuries after they were supposed to have taken place] as part of a theological rewriting [indeed, creation of] history (referred to by biblical scholars as Deuteronomic History) that was used to enhance the political power and justify the political exploits and ambitions of King Josiah, who ruled in Judah from 639-609 BCE. It is for this reason that much of the description of Canaan and its environs, including many of the place names given, reflect the situation in Canaan during in the seventh century, not how it would have looked during the earlier time periods when many of the events described were supposed to have taken place.
This rewriting of history can clearly be seen in the contradictory accounts of the conquest of Canaan presented in the Book of Judges vs. the Book of Joshua. In Judges, the conflict between Israelites and non-Israelites is presented, as it would have been in a tribal-level society, as a conflict between individual Israelite tribes and their neighbors. In Judges, some of the Israelite tribes were victorious in their conflict and came to dominate their non-Israelite neighbors, whereas others were not victorious and remained subordinate to their neighbors. But nowhere in Judges is there a description of the conquest of all of Canaan by all of the tribes of Israel united under a single leader (Joshua).
In other words, the above stories are simply myths. However, the composition of these myths differs within the Bible itself, and it is the form of this variation that is of interest here, because it demonstrates the role that myth plays in the rationalization of political relations. In order to examine the Bible, however, we have to know who wrote it, when they wrote it, who their audience was, what their bias was, and what precipitated their writing it. There are numerous different authors in the Bible. Traditionally, authorship of the Torah was attributed to Moses. However, this is impossible, as many of the events outlined in the Torah occurred after Moses' death. Also, Numbers12:3 states: "Now Moses was a very humble man, more humble than anyone else on the face of the earth." Clearly, if this were true, Moses could not have written such a passage.
Biblical scholars have defined four major "documents" included within the Torah: the E-Document, J-Document, P-Document and Deuteronomy. (see Richard Elliott Friedman, Who Wrote the Bible?). Each individual document contains a distinct set of stories or a unique version of the same story within one or more of the first five books of the Bible, except Deuteronomy which is a separate book of its own. Each document reflects the interest and perspective of a particular segment of Israelite society, in much the same way that the different versions of of Jesus' life and teaching presented in the various canonical and non-canonical gospels --some 34 in all-- epistles, letters, etc. in the New Testament reflect the interests and perspectives of the communities that produced them. While the E-Document is associated with the former northern tribes and kingdom (Israel), the remaining four documents are all associated with the former southern tribes and kingdom (Judah). This north-south distinction reflects the historical divide (and at times hostility) that existed between these two regions and the political-military dominance of the southern kingdom.
E-Document The E-Document stories in the Torah are recognized by the fact that God is referred to as Elohim (God in English translations) in these stories. The E-Document stories are more abstract than the J-Document stories and represent the traditions passed down through the northern tribes of Israel (see Map 4). According to the Hebrew Bible, prior to being conquered by David, the northern tribes were united into a sovereign kingdom under Saul. David killed Saul, forcibly annexed the northern territory into his kingdom and moved his capitol from Hebron ( a southern town) to Jerusalem, which was close to the border between the north and south. David's son, Solomon, consolidated Judah's dominion over the former northern kingdom and expanded his monarchy, establishing alliances with numerous other rulers through marriage (According to the Bible: "And he ...(Solomon)... had seven hundred wives, princesses, and three hundred concubines" (1Kings 11:3). The northern kingdom gained its former independence upon the death of Solomon, with the northern priesthood in Shiloh supporting Jeroboam, while the southern priesthood in Jerusalem supported Rehoboam, Solomon's son. The northern kingdom remained independent until it was defeated by the Persians in 722 BCE. Another way of identifying the E-Document stories with the northern kingdom is the fact that the largest of the northern Israelite tribes was the tribe of Ephraim, which also begins with the letter "E" (see Map 4). Moses was the hero of the northern priesthood at Shiloh and appears favorably in the E-Document stories.
J-Document The J-Document stories are distinguished by their use of the word Yahweh (Lord in English translations). This set of stories is referred to as the J-Document due to the German and subsequent English translation of Yahweh as Jehovah. The phrase Yahweh Elohim (Lord God) is also used in J-Document stories. The J-Document stories are generally considered more "primitive" than the E-Document stories, containing talking animals and serpent stories. The creation story presented in Genesis 2 is a J-Document story. This version of the creation story also differs significantly from the creation story told in Genesis 1 (which is a P-Document story). Humans, for example, are created first in Genesis 2, whereas they are created last in the better-known Genesis 1 version of the story. In addition, the act of creation is more primitive in Genesis 2 in that God creates humankind through the molding of clay rather than simply by the spoken word. The J-Document contains the stories and traditions associated with the Kingdom of Judah and its peoples, including the stories of the Patriarchs, which are not contained in the E-Document stories. Finally, Aaron (Moses' brother) rather than Moses is the hero of the J-Document stories, and the priesthood associated with the temple in Jerusalem was referred to as the Aaronic priesthood. [It is also convenient for associating these stories with the southern kingdom that the primary tribe of the south, Judah, also begins with "J".] Judah was the largest and most powerful of all the Israelite tribes and was largely feared by the other tribes. This was, after all, the tribe that expanded its dominion over all of the other tribes.
P-Document The P-Document is the priestly document. When the final editors attempted to pull together the northern and southern traditions into a coherent narrative that promoted the unity of the Israelite people, they encountered numerous contradictions and gaps which needed to be closed. The P-Document is largely impersonal in its tone and contains most of the statistical and genealogical information. This is the document of the "begats". Like the J-Document, the P-Document is a document which reflects more the southern perspective.
Deuteronomy Deuteronomy is also a southern document. However, this document, which was purportedly discovered during the 18th year of King Josiah's reign (622 BCE), claims that Yahweh made a covenant whereby the house of David will always be the legitimate rulers of Judea, no matter how badly specific individual Davidic kings ruled or behaved. In addition, the stories in Deuteronomy present a history of the Kingdom of Judah in which prosperity and misfortune throughout Judah (including its relations with surrounding kingdoms) are determined by the extent to which the people of Judah submit to Yahweh's authority and adhere to Yahweh's laws. Significantly, Deuteronomy was discovered in the basement of the Temple at the very time Josiah was attempting to establish the primacy of worship in the Temple in Jerusalem (his capitol) in the face of increasing worship in local communities. Conveniently for Josiah, the first commandment presented in Deuteronomy calls for the consolidation of worship in one place.
Two examples will illustrate how the various documents in the Torah differed, as well as how they presented different perspectives on the same story: (1) the story in which Moses is commanded by God to strike a specific rock in order to produce water for the parched Israelites during their flight from Egypt; and (2) the flood story in which Noah is commanded by God to build an ark upon which he is to gather animals of every kind in order to save those animal species from extinction as a result of the great flood that God is about to unleash on the earth.
There are two versions of the story in which God commands Moses to strike the rock with his staff in order to produce water for the Israelites while they are wondering in the desert (see below). Not only is the writing style distinctly different between these two versions of the same story, but so also is the outcome and, thus, the lesson to be learned from the story. In the Exodus version of the story (which is an E-Document story), Moses strikes the rock as commanded by God and is the hero of the day. In the Numbers version of the story (which is a P-Document story), Moses doesn't quite do what God commanded him do. Instead of striking the rock once, he strikes it twice. God is, therefore, displeased with Moses and punishes him for his lack of faith by not allowing him to personally lead the Israelites into the promised land. Also significant is the fact that Moses' brother Aaron is mentioned in the Numbers version of the story but not in the Exodus version, and Aaron is punished along with Moses for Moses' failure to follow God's orders, even though Aaron was innocent. As would be expected, we have an E-Document version of the story in which Moses (the hero of the northern priesthood) is in command of the situation and a P-Document story in which Aaron (the hero of the southern priesthood) is punished because of Moses' failure. [Conversely, in the story of the Golden Calf (Exodus 32), which is an E-document story, it is Aaron who organizes the construction of the calf and Moses who destroys it.]
The flood story is largely told in Genesis 6-8. While it appears as one story, there are, in fact, two versions of the story that have been blended together to appear as a single narrative. Again, not only is the writing style of the two stories quite distinct, but so also are the details of the story. The difference between the two versions of the flood story are more clearly seen when they are separated from one another (The illustration below is taken from Richard Friedman, Who Wrote the Bible? Summit Books, 1987.). The J-Document version of the flood story is presented below in brown, while the P-document version is printed in blue. The logical line to follow "But Noah found favor in the eyes of the Lord" (Gen.6:8) is not "This is the Account of Noah. Noah was a righteous man . . ." but rather "The lord then said to Noah . . ." Indeed, the story flows more clearly if you just read the brown text (skipping over the text in blue) or just the blue text (skipping over the brown). In the J-document story, God tells Noah to take with him 9 pairs of animals: 7 pairs of animals that are clean and 1 pair that are unclean, plus 7 pair of every kind of bird (Gen 7:2-3). The flood lasts for 40 days and 40 nights (Gen 7:4, 17), and Noah sends out a dove to find dry land (Gen 8:8). In the P-document version of the story, on the other hand, God instructs Noah to take only 2 animals of each kind onto the ark, which he does (Gen 6:19-22; 7:9). The flood lasts 150 days (Gen 7:24, 8:3), and Noah releases a raven to find dry land (Gen 8:7). [See also Norman C. Habel, "The Two Flood Stories in Genesis." in Alan Dundes (ed.), The Flood Myth. University of California Press. 1988, pp. 13-28.]
There are two more issues that need to be addressed before we can examine the genealogy of Genesis from an anthropological perspective. The first of these is the overriding importance in Genesis that the Israelites maintain their purity (separateness) from surrounding peoples: "Of the nations concerning which the Lord said unto the children of Israel, Ye shall not go in to them, neither shall they come in unto you: for surely they will turn away your heart after their gods." (1Kings 11:2). They were, after all, Yahweh's "chosen people." In order to achieve this purity, it is necessary for the Israelites to descend exclusively from Terah, Abraham's father, since it was Abraham who first established the covenant between his people and Yahweh. This necessitates several incestuous marriages, including that between Abraham and his sister, Sarah (Gen. 20:12). Abraham twice lends his wife, Sarah, out on the grounds that she is his sister. He lent Sarah to the Pharaoh on the grounds that she was his sister (see Gen. 12:11-20), as well as to King Abimilech (see Gen. 20:1-12). Sarah was his sister because she was the daughter of one of Abraham's father's wives (not his own mother). In a patrilineal society, which the ancient Israelites were, the daughter of one's father is one's sister (not half-sister) because you trace descent through males only. Abraham's son, Isaac, similarly marries his cousin Rebecca (Gen. 25:20), and Isaac's son, Jacob (Israel), marries his cousins Rachel and Leah (his mother's brothers daughters). Esau, on the other hand, is condemned for marrying a Hittite woman [an outsider] (Gen. 36:1-9). Even Solomon, the Israelite's greatest king, is criticized for marrying outsiders: "But king Solomon loved many strange women, together with the daughter of Pharaoh, women of the Moabites, Ammonites, Edomites, Zidonians, and Hittites" (1Kings 11:1).
The final issue that must be addressed is the literary style of biblical writings. Many words and phrases appear in the Bible that cannot be translated literally into English. Such words and phrases must be understood in the context of the language of the Bible at the time those words and phrases were written. For example, the statement in the flood story that it rained "40 days and 40 nights" must be translated to mean that it rained for a long time, not that it rained exactly for 40 consecutive days and nights. This would be comparable to our own phrase that it is "raining cats and dogs". Someone reading such a statement in the future would be sorely misled by literally translating this phrase to mean that animals were falling out of the sky. Similarly, the phrase "preserved the seed thereof" refers, not to planting crops, but to continuing the patrilineal birth line.
In the same way, the Cain and Abel story is not a description of an actual historical event, but an eponymous account of the shift in Israelite history from the time they were formerly nomadic herdsmen to when they became settled farmers. The contrasting characteristics of Cain and Abel reflect the nostalgic view that their herding past (Abel) was a time of ease and tranquility and closeness to nature, in contrast to the difficulties and conflicts associated with their subsequent village agricultural existence (Cain).
It is commonly known that the phrase "and he knew her" does not mean that a particular man and women were merely acquaintances or friends. It means something quite different: it means that they had sexual intercourse. Indeed, it is considered by some to be significant in this regard that Mary Magdalene is referred to in the Gnostic Gospels (early Christian writings that were lost to history and mostly rediscovered in 1945) as the "One who knew the All." While this may mean, in Gnostic writings, that Mary was spiritually closer to Jesus than the Apostles, if the Gnostics were following in Biblical literary tradition they may have believed something more. [The Gnostic Gospels present a very different picture of Jesus and of the relation of Mary Magdalene and the Apostles to Jesus. Mary is variously referred to in the Gnostic Gospels as the "One who knew the All", the "Apostle who excels the rest", the "Disciple of the Lord", "One who reveals the Greatness of the Revealer", the "Inheritor of the Light", the "Privileged Interlocutor", the "One who is always with the Lord", the "One whom they call His Consort", and the "Chosen of Women". Indeed, Mary's closeness to Jesus is a problem for the Apostles in the Gnostic Gospels and is explicitly addressed in the Gospel of Phillip: “The Lord loved Mary more than all the disciples and kissed her on her mouth often. The others said to him: Why do you love her more than all of us? The Saviour answered and said to them: Why do I not love you like her?”]
We are now prepared to examine the stories which illustrate the political role that the genealogy in Genesis plays in placing Israelite's neighbors in greater or lesser social distance from them.
order to establish their kingdom. Canaan was the promised land given to the Israelites by God. The only problem was that it was already occupied. By portraying Ham, "the father of Canaan", as a despicable individual performing a homosexual incestuous act on Noah (his own father), and by having Noah curse Ham for what he "had done unto him", the Bible justifies and legitimizes the ancient Israelites historical conquest of Canaan. It also legitimizes the enslavement of the Canaanites and the imposition of the Israelite religion, since the Israelites are the descendents of Shem (see Figure 2), the person to whom Canaan is to be a slave [Shem refers to the people known today as the Semites].
Also significant is where the Israelites place the Canaanites in their genealogy. The Canaanites are as far removed from the Israelites as is possible and still be human. An Israelite must trace his or her ancestry all the way back to Noah in order to establish a connection with the Canaanites. This is as far back in time as one could go. In a social and political world governed by the norms of kinship and genealogy, the Israelites owe absolutely no allegiance or regard to the Canaanites. To the ancient Israelites, the people whose land they conquered were: (1) as distantly related to them as a people could be, (2) were descended from a man who committed homosexual incest with his own father (Noah); and (3) were commanded by that father to be the slaves of the Israelites. This was a perfect ideological justification for having appropriated the Canaanite's land and for having enslaved them.
In summation, then, compared to the Canaanites, the sexual act which gave birth to the eponymous ancestors of the Moabites and Ammonites was less onerous than the sexually deviant act that was performed by the father of the eponymous ancestor of the Canaanites. In addition, the Moabites and Ammonites could claim a closer genealogical connection to the Israelites than could the Canaanites and, therefore, could make a more legitimate claim to being treated with respect.
The story of Jacob and Esau (see below) also attempts to explain the Israelites historical relations with one of their neighbors, the Edomites to the south (see Map 6). Jacob, who later becomes Israel (the eponymous ancestor of all the Israelites) and Esau (the eponymous ancestor of the Edomites) are twin brothers who were born to Isaac (Abraham's son) and his wife Rebecca. The two sons never got along; they fought constantly. Indeed, Genesis 25:22 states that the two children even fought while they were still inside their mother's womb. Esau was born first and, therefore, was entitled to inherit his father's property and authority when Isaac died. This is called primogeniture. However, one day when Esau came in from the fields and was near starvation, he asked Jacob for some of the red lentils he was cooking. Jacob agreed to do this, but only if Esau agreed to give up his birthright in exchange for the food (Gen.25: 34-35). As a result, Esau became known as Edom (which means red).
Later, when Isaac is on his deathbed, he calls out for Esau in order to give him his birthright. However, Rebecca and Jacob conspire to trick Isaac into giving Esau's birthright to Jacob, whom Rebecca loved best. Rebecca cooks Isaac's favorite food, which Isaac has requested, and has Jacob cover his arm with a goatskin when he brings Isaac the food (because Esau was especially hairy). Rebecca and Jacob manage to fool the old man, and he bequeaths everything to Jacob. When Esau returns and discovers what has happened, he is furious and threatens to kill Jacob. His mother warns Jacob of Esau's intentions and instructs him to stay with her brother Laban's family until Esau cools down. In the meantime, Isaac instructs Jacob not to marry any Canaanite women, but tells him to travel to Padanaram to marry Laban's daughters (i.e., his mother's brother's daughters). Jacob subsequently marries Laban's two daughters: Rachel and Leah. Esau, on the other hand, had previously disappointed his parents by marrying a Hittite woman (Gen. 26:34-35). The Hittites were a powerful kingdom in what is today Turkey, which means that she was not descended from Terah.
Jacob and Esau
In order to understand the above story, we need to understand the historical political relations that prevailed among the Israelites and the Edomites. The Edomites were a powerful local kingdom prior to the time that the Israelite kingdom dominated the region under David and Solomon. This is reflected by the fact that Esau (the eponymous ancestor of the Edomites) was born before Jacob (the eponymous ancestor of the Israelites). The Israelites were never able to conquer the Edomites as they had the Canaanites, or even subordinate them as they had the Moabites and Ammonites. The two kingdoms maintained an intermittent state of hostility with one another instead. The ongoing conflict between the Edomites and Israelites is explained in the story by having Esau and Jacob fighting even in their mother's womb. Indicative of Israelite-Edomite hostility is the fact that several centuries after Genesis was written Herod the Great, the Roman-appointed ruler of Judea at the time of Jesus' birth, was strongly disliked by the Jews, in part, because he was an Idumean, the name used to refer to the Edomites at that time.
It is also significant that, while Jacob marries Rachel and Leah, his mother's brother's daughters (cross cousins) who, like him, are descended from Abraham's father, Terah, Esau marries a Hittite woman --an outsider not descended from Terah. The sons and grandsons of Jacob's wife, Rachel, are the eponymous ancestors of the northern tribes of Israel, while those of Leah make up the eponymous ancestors of the southern tribes. This explains the historical rivalry and conflict that existed between the northern and southern kingdoms. Significantly for the story, Leah, the mother of the various eponymous ancestors of the southern tribes is the older sister, reflecting the primacy of the southern Kingdom of David and Solomon in this J-Document story.
Upon closer examination, the genealogy contained within Genesis displays an interesting political phenomenon: those neighboring peoples with whom the Israelites were in conflict were claimed by the Israelites to have descended from ancestors guilty of illicit sexual behavior. Significantly, the more intense was the political conflict between a group of people and the Israelites and the more those people had been subordinated by the Israelites, the more offensive was the sexual act performed by that group’s eponymous ancestor and the more distant did the Israelites trace a genealogical connection to them.
The most heinous sexual crime --homosexual incest-- was that of Ham, the father of Canaan, the eponymous ancestor of the Canaanites whom the Israelites conquered and enslaved. Not only is incest unacceptable, but in an agricultural society which places a high value on reproduction, homosexuality is generally frowned upon. Indeed, among the Israelites, it was an abomination. The Canaanites are also as far removed from the Israelites in their genealogy as a people can be and still be human. The Israelites were, thus, not obligated to accord the Canaanites the same respect and consideration that they would someone more closely related to them in their genealogical world view.
Lot's daughter's behavior was also unacceptable, but it was not as heinous as the behavior of Ham. It was, at least, heterosexual incest, plus it was done for altruistic reasons. The Moabites and the Ammonites, the product of Lot's daughter's incest are, therefore, not as distantly placed within the Israelite genealogy, as would befit a people whom the Israelites defeated but did nor conquer.
Closer still is the connection between the Israelites and the Edomites. The Israelites needed only to trace their genealogy back to Isaac in order to establish a connection with the Edomites. At the same time, the Israelites were never able to defeat, let alone conquer the Edomites. They remained rivals of relatively equal strength. Consequently, the "crime" of Esau, their eponymous ancestor, was simply that he married a Hittite woman, someone not descended from Terah. This compromised the purity of his bloodline.
Finally, by distinguishing the sons of Jacob (Israel) as belonging respectively to his two wives, Rachel and Leah, the genealogy attempts to explain the complicated historical relations between the northern and southern kingdoms and peoples. The sons of Rachel are the eponymous ancestors of the northern tribes, while the sons of Leah comprise the eponymous ancestors of the southern tribes. It is important to remember that the Israelites were originally organized, like most other nomadic pastoral peoples, into independent lineages, clans and tribes which fiercely defended their sovereignty. Only reluctantly did they form into larger and more permanent political organizations, and for only two generations (first under David, then under Solomon) did they comprise a single people organized into a centralized political system. Also, the monarchy was established by conquest from the south and was eventually rejected in the north.
As is the case with other genealogies and histories studied by anthropologists, Genesis represents an emic document that evolved among the ancient Israelites, in part, to justify, rationalize and legitimize their social and political history. However, as with other genealogies, Genesis can best be understood through an etic analysis in which local social behaviors and institutions presented in Genesis are viewed as specific manifestations of general theoretical principles.
* * * * *
Of Related Interest:
* * * * *