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History as Etiology in the Bible

Van Seters applied his observations from Huizinga's definition and from Greek history writing to the Bible. He isolated the following five criteria for identifying history writing in ancient Israel:17 Van Seters, In Search of History, 4–5.

  • 1. History writing was a specific form of tradition in its own right rather than the accidental accumulation of traditional material.

  • 2. History writing considered the reason for recalling the past and the significance of past events and was not primarily the accurate reporting of the past.

  • 3. History writing examined the (primarily moral) causes in the past of present conditions and circumstances.

  • 4. History writing was national or corporate in nature.

  • 5. History writing was literary and an important part of a people's corporate tradition.

These criteria are important for identifying the genre of “history writing” in the Bible and for understanding the nature of the genre of ancient history writing as opposed to other genres such as epic or legend. Of particular interest for our present purposes are items 2 and 3. The Greek word for “cause” is aitia, which lends itself to the word “etiology.” An etiology is a story that explains the cause or origin of a given phenomenon—a cultural practice or social custom, a biological circumstance, even a geological formation. An etiology of this nature is not a scientific explanation. It is not historical in the modern sense of an event that actually took place in the past. It is, rather, a story that “renders an account” by offering some explanation of present conditions and circumstances based on past causes. Ancient history writing, which sought to “render an account” of the past was, in effect, etiology.

An excellent illustration of the nature of etiologies is found in a group of stories by Rudyard Kipling called the Just So Stories.18 Rudyard Kipling, Just So Stories: For Little Children (London: Folio Society, 1991). They bear such titles as “How the Camel Got His Hump,” “How the Leopard Got His Spots,” “How the Alphabet Was Made.” These stories provide imaginative explanations for children about the origins of a variety of natural and cultural phenomena. In “How the Camel Got His Hump,” for instance, the horse, ox, and dog each attempt to get the camel to work and are rebuffed in turn by the same reply: “Humph!” When a Djinn or genie is similarly rebuffed, he turns the camel's back into a humph (= hump). The hump allows the camel to live for three days without eating so that it can make up the three days that it remained idle at the beginning. The story not only provides a fanciful explanation of the camel's distinctive anatomy but it also includes a false etymology of the word “hump.”

The etiologies from ancient Israel and Greece, though based on tradition, can be just as imaginative as Kipling's stories. They are equally unscientific and just as unhistorical in the sense of actually having taken place. Yet they function within the genre of history writing because they have been collected as the result of research into traditional materials and because they provide an explanation for the existence of some circumstance or condition in the historian's day. This does not mean that all of the traditions recorded as part of Israel's history writing are fictional and unhistorical in the modern sense. Some are no doubt based on actual events of the past, but to attempt to read the account of Israel's history in the Bible strictly as a record of actual events is to misconstrue its genre and to force it to do something it was not intended to do. To make this literature history in a modern sense is to misunderstand it every bit as much as the book of Jonah is misunderstood if one attempts to read it as a record of actual events.

There are plenty of individual etiologies in the Bible. Our purpose is not to examine them all but to show how they function within the larger genre of history writing to provide explanations and causes from the past for prime elements of Israel's self-understanding. Key to that self-understanding is Israel's perception of its relationship to its God, Yahweh. As with the story of Jonah, the theology (or theologies) of the various examples of history writing from ancient Israel is not dependent on the actual historicity of the episodes they describe. Ancient Israelite historians, who sought to render an account of their nation, found the ultimate explanation for its origin and its present state in Yahweh. As for ancient Greek historians, so in the Bible, history was written for an ideological purpose. History was theology.

Etiology in Genesis: Prime Example (Gen 1–3)

Creation (Gen 1:1–2:3)

The account of creation in Genesis 1 is an etiology in the sense that it relates the origin of the world. But the impulse to regard it as historical fact often leads readers to overlook its literary sophistication. Careful attention to its structure and content indicates that the chapter's intent is to account not only for the origins of the world but also, and perhaps primarily, for social and religious phenomena of the author's day. Following a form-critical approach, we begin with an analysis of the text's structure.

To begin with some general observations related to structure, there are several places where the description in this chapter is at odds with science, so that it is hard to see it as historical reality. Thus, while the sun and moon are not created until the fourth day, there is already light, day and night, and thriving vegetation—all of which we know to be impossible without the sun. The sky is called the “dome” (NRSV). The word used here properly refers to a bowl-shaped vessel that is beaten out and therefore implies that the earth beneath it is flat. Day five sees the creation of “sea monsters” or “dragons,” which are mythological creatures.19 The Hebrew Bible contains a number of references to sea monsters or dragons—cf. Job 7:12; Pss 74:13; 148:7; Isa 27:1; 51:9; Jer 51:34; Ezek 29:3; 32:2. In Canaanite mythology the sea god, Yamm, was envisioned as a dragon and referred to as Leviathan. The same mythological background is apparent in the passages that refer to the sea as a dragon or use the name Leviathan (Job 7:12; Ps 74:13; Isa 27:1; Isa 51:9–10). The sequence “evening and morning” (rather than “morning and evening”) reflects the ancient Israelite calendar, which marked the beginning of a new day at sunset. (The same calendar continues today in the start of the Jewish Sabbath at sundown on Friday.) This feature of the document indicates that it embodies a particular cultural outlook that was different from a modern, scientific one.

The account of creation in Genesis 1 is obviously organized by days. This is the strongest indication that this account continues into chapter 2, since 2:1–3 continues this organizational scheme by telling about the seventh day.20 The division between chapters 1 and 2 is unfortunate and not an original part of the text of Genesis, since the Bible was first divided into chapters and verses in the thirteenth century CE. The account for each day is highly formulaic with the repetition of the same basic set of expressions:

God said, “Let there be X.”And there was X / So God made X / And it was so.God saw that X was good.God called X “X.”There was evening and morning, day Y.

The set of expressions is not rigid but accommodates variation. For instance, on the fifth and sixth days, there is the statement that God blessed animals, including birds and fish, and humans with the command, “Be fruitful and multiply.” Still, there is enough consistency to discern a basic pattern or formula upon which each day's account of creation is built. Remarkably, this basic formula occurs twice for days three and six. For the third day the account reads:

And God said, “Let the waters under the sky be gathered together intoone place, and let the dry land appear.”And it was so.God called the dry land Earth, and the waters that were gatheredtogether he called Seas.And God saw that it was good. (NRSV, Gen 1:9–10)

At this point, following the formula established in the other verses, one expects the text to say, “And there was evening and there was morning, the third day.” Instead, the formula begins again:

And21 NRSV's “Then” in 1:11 is interpretive. God said, “Let the earth put forth vegetation…”And it was so…And God saw that it was good.

Only then does the time reference, “There was evening and there was morning, the third day,” occur. Similarly, for the sixth day, one finds the basic formula:

And God said, “Let the earth bring forth living creatures of every kind…”And it was so…God made the wild animals of the earth of every kind.

Then one expects to read, “And it was evening and it was morning, the sixth day.” Instead, the formula restarts and is expanded through the end of the chapter:

And22 Again, the NRSV in 1:26 has “Then,” which is interpretive. The Hebrew text has “And.” God said, “Let us make humankind in our image…”So God created humankind in his image…And it was so.God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good.And there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day.

The result of this repetition of the standard formula for days three and six is that the narrative describes the creation of two categories of things, two creative acts for each of those days. The first act on day three is the gathering of the waters to form seas and dry land. This is followed by the creation of vegetation on the dry land. On day six, land animals and humans are created in separate acts. Only one creative act is detailed for every other day.

The structure of the entire account may thus be sketched as follows:

Day 1: light Day 4: sun, moon, stars
Day 2: dome (sky) in the midst of waters Day 5: birds, fish
Day 3: seas and dry land vegetation Day 6: land animals humans
Day 7: Sabbath

This structure suggests that a version of creation in eight installments underlies this account of creation. The biblical author kept the eight installments, as indicated by the repetition of the daily pattern on days three and six. But instead of having creation take place over eight days, the author compacted it into six days by placing two installments on days three and six, that is, having two categories of things created on those days. The reason for doing this was apparently to leave the seventh day, the Sabbath, as a day of rest for God.

The foregoing observations about the structure of Genesis 1:1–2:3 permit us to make inferences about the other form-critical concerns of genre, intent, and setting. This text is a creation story—an explanation for the origin of the world. But it is also an etiology for the Sabbath. Its intent seems to be to make two very powerful theological points: (1) that God, specifically Israel's God Yahweh, is the creator of the world, and (2) that the Sabbath is so important that it is engrained in the very order of the universe; even God at creation kept the Sabbath.

The second theological point has implications for the setting of this text, at least the social and political aspects of its setting. Ensuring the observation of the Sabbath and other ritual practices was the function of the priestly class in ancient Israel. By locating the Sabbath at creation and giving it such an exalted role, Genesis 1:1–2:3 was also promoting the function of priests as essential to ancient Israel. This is one of the reasons that biblical scholars typically speak of this creation account as a document probably written by a priest. It is etiology, theology, and sociopolitical ideology all at once.

Adam and Eve (Gen 2:4b–3:24)

The famous story of Adam and Eve and the Garden of Eden is one of the best examples of etiology in the Bible. It contains a number of etiologies, which might be given titles resembling Kipling's Just So Stories, such as “How the Snake Lost Its Legs.” Like Kipling's stories, the Genesis story does not report history, at least not in the modern sense of actual events.

Again, we may begin our analysis with matters of structure. It is fairly obvious that the story of Adam and Eve is a story of creation. But it is an independent story and not a continuation of the account we have just treated in Genesis 1:1–2:3. This is evident from the fact that the Adam and Eve story has a distinctive beginning. In fact, both stories begin with the same grammatical structure. Both have a temporal clause, interrupted by a parenthetical description of conditions at the time of God's act, followed by God's first creative deed in each story.

Gen 1:1–3 (AT) Gen 2:4b–7 (AT)
Temporal clause When God began to create23 the heavens and the earth When (“in the day”) Yahweh God made earth and heavens
Parenthetical description (the earth being formless and empty with darkness on the surface of the deep and the divine wind/spirit sweeping over the surface of the water) (before there was any shrub or grass on the earth, since Yahweh God had not brought rain on the earth, nor was there any human to work the ground but a mist came up from the earth and watered the ground's surface)
First deed of creation God said, “Let there be light,” and light came into existence. Yahweh God formed the human of dust from the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life so that the human became a living being.

Although they begin the same way grammatically, the two stories differ markedly in significant details, especially concerning the order of creation, and this is revealed by close attention to structure. In Genesis 1, human beings are the last item of creation, following plants and animals. There is also no reason to assume that the creation of humankind in Genesis 1 refers to a single pair. It is not the case that only one pair of the other animals was created. A reader would make that assumption only if he or she already knew the subsequent story about Adam and Eve. In the Adam and Eve story, in contrast, one man is created, followed by the garden for him to inhabit, then the animals in search of a suitable companion, and finally a woman is made from the man, as we see from this comparative list:

Gen 1:1–2:3 Gen 2:4b–3:24
Day 1 – light the man
Day 2 – dome (sky) the garden
Day 3 – seas and dry land + vegetation the animals
Day 4 – sun, moon, stars the woman
Day 5 – birds, fish
Day 6 – land animals + humans
Day 7 – Sabbath

Thus, two versions of the same event—creation—have been juxtaposed or placed together, one right after the other. This kind of juxtaposing of variant traditions is also found in Herodotus and other Greek history writing.

Turning to genre and intent, which may be treated together, it is unlikely that the story in Genesis 2–3 was ever intended to be understood as an actual set of events. The symbolic nature of the story would have been clear to its original audience from the names of its characters. Adam and Eve were not proper names in ancient Israel. They do not occur elsewhere in the Bible for any other characters (‘ādām is the Hebrew word for “man” or “human”; Eve (Hebrew: ḥawwāh) is related to the word for “life.”) The names are a signal to the reader that ‘ādām is a symbolic character for humans in general or for all men and that Eve represents all women or womankind—the wellsprings of life.24 ’ādām occurs as a proper name in this story, i.e., without the definite article, only in 3:17, 21. The difference between definite and indefinite in those two instances is a single vowel that may very well have been accidentally miswritten. The rest of the time he is called “the ’ādām,” “the man.” The genealogy in 5:1 is the first truly clear instance of ’ādām as a proper name. Eve is named as such only near the end of the story (3:20).

The Adam and Eve story is a story of origins. It mentions the creation of the world, but that is not its real focus. It refers to Yahweh's creation of “the earth and the heavens,” and describes this in detail. The description that follows indicates that the earth in some form is already in existence. The story focuses, rather, on the creation of human beings—first the man, then the woman as his companion, after the animals created in the meantime fail to satisfy that need. The story, therefore, offers explanations for the origin of the genders and their respective roles in society. It also accounts for the attraction of men and women to one another: They are of the same substance, the same “bone” and “flesh,” in contrast to the animals. This attraction lies behind the origin of marriage: “For this reason a man leaves his father and his mother and stays with his wife and they become one flesh”(AT). The story accounts for why the two genders are embarrassed to be naked in one another's presence and why humans, alone of creation, wear clothing. On a deeper level, the story suggests a connection between sexuality and knowledge that brings to mind the experience of puberty. Just as, in the biblical story, the man and woman become aware of their nakedness when they eat from the tree of knowledge, so in adolescence the development of conscience and a sense of moral responsibility coincides with the maturation of the sexual organs and the libido.

The curses at the end of the story both account for and presuppose different social roles in its ancient Israelite setting. The subordination of women in this story seems pervasive, despite “politically correct” attempts to downplay it.25 See especially Phyllis Trible, God and the Rhetoric of Sexuality, Overtures to Biblical Theology (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1978). Trible contends that sexism and gender distinctions do not enter the story until the curse in 3:16. Her case falters on 2:23, where the man is already gendered and the woman taken out of him. However, Trible is certainly correct that subsequent tradition has introduced far more sexism into the story than is warranted by the text. The woman is created second, out of the man, as his companion. It is she who is deceived by the snake and who then leads the man astray. Ultimately, her husband “rules over” her. But the woman's pains in childbirth do not begin with the curses; they are “greatly increased” at that point. Similarly, the man's cultivation of the earth starts before the curses; it is just that the ground is cursed so as to make his labor more difficult. The social hierarchy was already in place before the forbidden fruit was eaten.

The blatant sexism of the story pointedly illustrates the crucial role discernment of genre plays in interpretation. If the story is read as an actual event as has typically been the case in the past and continues as an influential perspective today, then the subordination of women becomes normative—the divinely sanctioned order of the universe. If, however, the story is understood as etiology, then its setting in the ancient Israelite cultural and societal context is obvious. It is simply a tradition borrowed by the ancient Israelite historian in an effort to account for the domestic status quo of that particular society. Universality and particularity coalesce, because the historian writes with the pen of national theology. Just as each nation would view its deity as the creator, so for the Israelite historian Yahweh is the originator of the cosmos.

Above all, this story's etiologies are theological. It explains separation from God and human mortality as the result of sin. Perhaps more to the point, the hardships of daily survival find their causes in human disobedience. The story is scripture not because it contains a divine mandate ordering human society but because it reflects Israel's struggle to understand its life theologically.

In sum, the story in Genesis 2–3 functions within the genre of ancient history writing partly as an account of the creation of the world, but that is not its primary intent. Rather, it serves to explain the reasons or causes for the difficulty of human life within the setting of ancient Israel's domestic structure. Implicit in the account is the recognition by the historian that the characters are symbols and not actual persons or the episodes actual events of the past.

Etiology in Genesis: Other Examples

Repopulating the Earth (Gen 9:18–10:32)

Just as one of Kipling's Just So Stories dealt with the origin of the alphabet, so one of the items ancient Greek and Israelite history writers sought to explain in creation stories was the beginning of human inventions and crafts. The genealogy in Genesis 4:17–22, for example, describes various individuals in it as the builder of the first city, the founder of pastoral nomadism, the inventor of musical instruments, and the fashioner of metal tools.

Perhaps the most famous such inventor in the Bible is Noah, whose accomplishment is usually overlooked because of his reputation as the hero of the flood. Noah's father, Lamech, gave him the name “Noah” because he would “bring relief” or “comfort”26 The word play here is with the Hebrew root nḥm. However, the name Noah actually comes from the root nwḥ, which still means “to rest, settle.” people from the “grievous labor” (lit. “work and hardship”) that Yahweh's curses in Eden had brought upon them (Gen 5:29). After the flood, Noah became the first person to plant a vineyard and make wine, thus bringing relief out of the ground, as his father had foreseen. Unfortunately, on this same occasion, Noah also overindulged and became the world's first drunk in one of the Bible's strangest stories (Gen 9:20–27). To outline the story briefly, a drunken Noah falls asleep naked in his tent. His son Ham sees his father naked and reports it to his two brothers, Shem and Japheth, who then cover their father, being careful to avert their view. When Noah revives and finds out what has transpired, he invokes a curse of slavery on Ham's son Canaan.

This story presents a host of interpretive difficulties.27 For an overview, see Stephen R. Haynes, Noah's Curse: The Biblical Justification of American Slavery (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002), esp. 23–40. What is relatively transparent is its intent to justify the traditions of Israel's later subjugation of the Canaanites. The story does this by means of an eponymous story or tradition. An eponym is defined as a real or imaginary person for whom some group of people, such as a tribe or nation, is believed to be named. An eponymous ancestor does more than bear the name of a group of people. He or she actually represents and even embodies them. In the present story, Canaan is the eponymous ancestor of the Canaanites, the individual after whom the Canaanites were supposedly named. Since there were different groups of Canaanites, it is unlikely that they actually all descended from a single individual. But that is irrelevant to the story. Canaan stands for the Canaanite people. The point of the story is to show that Israel's conquest of the land of Canaan and subjugation of its inhabitants was justified because of the curse of slavery that Noah imposed upon Ham's son Canaan.

The use of eponymous figures continues in Genesis 10, which is closely linked to the story of the curse on Canaan. The genre of this text is purportedly a genealogy of the descendants of Noah's three sons. But closer inspection reveals that it is actually a list of peoples and geographic locations. In fact, it is often dubbed the “table of nations.” Its intent is to account for the repopulation of the earth following the flood, and it accomplishes this by the clever use of eponyms.

The names in the chapter correspond to three basic geographic divisions. The descendants of Japheth were places in Anatolia (modern Turkey) and the western Mediterranean. For example, Gomer, Tubal, and Meshech were regions in Anatolia. Javan was the name for Greece in the Hebrew Bible. Its descendants include Tarshish, Kittim, and Rodanim. Tarshish was the site in southern Spain, on the Mediterranean coast, that was mentioned in Jonah as the place to which he tried to flee. Kittim and Rodanim were the islands of Cypress and Rhodes in the Mediterranean.

The descendants of Ham were areas in the Egyptian sphere of influence: Cush was the African region south of Egypt, Nubia or Ethiopia; Put was west of Egypt, Libya. Egypt (Hebrew: miṣrayim) and Canaan were the eponymous ancestors of those countries. Shem incorporated the eastern area of the fertile crescent, including Elam (= Persia), Asshur (= Assyria or northern Mesopotamia), and Aram (= Syria).28 The descendants of Cush in Gen 10:8–12 appear to be out of place. Nimrod (= Nimrud), Babel (= Babylon), Erech (= Uruk), Akkad, Shinar, Nineveh, and Calah are all in Mesopotamia, particularly the southern part of the region, so that one would expect them to be listed as heirs of Shem rather than Ham. The misplacement is the result of confusion over the meaning of “Cush,” which in addition to Nubia is sometimes used to refer to southern Mesopotamia because it was once ruled by people known as “Kassites,” whose name in Hebrew resembles “Cush.”

The ancient Israelite historian composed or adapted this list of place names in the form of a genealogy in order to account for the repopulation of the earth through Noah's three sons. It is obvious that the historian did not have the entire planet in view. Most of Europe and Africa are unaccounted for, and there is no mention of India, Asia, the Americas, or other parts of the globe. The “genealogy” in Genesis 10 accounts for the world known or of primary interest to the writer and his audience. The writer hereby renders an account of how the world of his readers was repopulated after the flood from the offspring of one man, Noah, through his three sons.

As in the case of the Adam and Eve story, the history of interpretation behind the story of Noah's sons pointedly illustrates the danger of misconstruing the genre of a biblical text. Read as history, this text became the most widely used biblical passage in favor of slavery before the Civil War and was then used to promote segregation following the War.29 Again see Haynes, Noah's Curse. Unfortunately, Haynes dismisses the relevance of historical-critical scholarship of the Bible for countering this history of nefarious interpretation. His own response involves remythologizing Ham as victim (pp. 201–19), a strategy that is fanciful and uncompelling. The view of the flood story and subsequent materials, including the genealogy in Genesis 10, as historical fact was combined with the pseudoscientific notion of three great races of humankind: Ham was identified as the progenitor of Negroids (since Cush was recognized as Ethiopia), Japheth of Asians, and Shem of Caucasians. The subjugation of people of African origin was justified as the proper fulfillment of Noah's curse on Ham's descendants. There were glaring problems with this interpretation, of course. Most obvious was the fact that Noah's curse was directed not against all Ham's descendants but only against Canaan, the brother of Cush. But such problems were ignored or explained away. The point for our purposes is that proper recognition of the etiological nature of this episode within the genre of ancient history writing makes its genre as etiology and its intent clear. Failure to recognize its etiological nature has had a pernicious effect on Western, especially American, society.

The Tower of Babel (Gen 11:1–9)

The story of the tower of Babel is set in southern Mesopotamia (ancient Iraq)—the location of the plain of Shinar and of the city of Babylon, here called Babel. The tower, made of brick and reaching to heaven, alludes to a ziggurat, a temple in the form of a stepped pyramid, characteristic of Mesopotamian religion. Thus, the author had some acquaintance with Mesopotamian culture. The author may be poking fun at Mesopotamian religion, ridiculing its temples as failed attempts to build towers to heaven. The etiological nature of the story is again relatively apparent. Its intent is to provide an explanation for the origins of the different human languages and cultures associated with them.

Abraham and Lot (Genesis 18:16–19:38)

Beginning with chapter 12, the focus of the history in Genesis narrows from the origins of the entire world and all its peoples to those of Israel and the neighboring countries. The stories are of national and ethnic significance as they deal with traditions about Israel's ancestors. The historian typically adopts kinship relationships between eponymous ancestors as the way of accounting for the proximity and rivalry of Israel with the surrounding countries.

The story of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah in Genesis 18:16–19:38 is the culmination of the relationship between Abraham (Abram) and Lot. The historian apparently had traditions that identified Lot as Abram's nephew who journeyed with him to Canaan.30 Abram and Abraham are variants of same name (like “Rob” and “Robert”) with no real difference in meaning.. The author in Genesis 17 imputes meaning to the change in an etymological etiology. The story of Sodom and Gomorrah is set up by one in Genesis 13, in which Lot and Abram separated from each other because they had become too wealthy to remain together. Abram generously gave Lot his choice of location in the separation, and Lot chose the lower Jordan Valley, now the site of the Dead Sea. The story explains that at that time it was fertile and well watered. Lot moved to the region, eventually settling in Sodom.

Lot's presence in Sodom is apparently what induces Yahweh to reveal to Abraham his intention to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah.31 The nature of the wickedness of Sodom and Gomorrah is controversial. The men of the city want to “know” the two newcomers, an idiom for sexual relations. This is not, however, the same as sexual orientation as understood today. If it were, Lot's offer of his daughters would have been meaningless. The view of homosexual intercourse, especially in the form of rape, is unquestionably negative. However, the story cannot be construed as a blanket condemnation of homosexuality. Abraham persuades Yahweh to leave Sodom untouched if as few as ten righteous people are in it. The utter wickedness of the city, illustrated by the story in Genesis 19:1–11, leads Yahweh to proceed with the destruction. The account of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah and its aftermath is full of etiologies that account for the terrain around the Dead Sea. Lot escapes to a small city nearby named Zoar (“small”). Yahweh destroys the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah by raining “fire and brimstone (sulfur)” upon them. This accounts for the sulfur odor and high mineral content of the Dead Sea, which is, scientifically speaking, the result of evaporation of a body of water without outlet. The destruction also accounts for the dryness and barrenness of the region, which the story envisions as formerly lush and fertile.

At the end of the story are two eponymous etiologies, which explain the origin of the Ammonites and Moabites, the peoples on the other side of the Dead Sea from Israel, by recounting a tale about their eponymous ancestors. This story is a colorful one. Afraid to stay in Zoar, Lot moves with his two daughters to a cave. Believing that their father is the only chance for them to reproduce, the daughters, on consecutive nights, intoxicate their father and engage in sexual relations with him. The resulting sons are the eponymous ancestors of the Moabites and Ammonites. The name Moab resembles the Hebrew word for “from father” (mē'āb). Ben-ammi is Hebrew for “son of my people.” These contrived etymologies may have inspired the incestuous content of the story, which in turn reflects disdain for the Ammonites and Moabites. At the same time, the story recognizes Israel's proximity to them. Their description as kin to the Israelites through Abraham's nephew Lot may be a way of alluding to a treaty between them, or it may simply express geographical and cultural proximity.

Ishmael and Isaac (Gen 16:1–16; 21:1–21)

The principal theme in the Abraham story is that of the divine promise that Abraham would become the father of a great nation. This promise is the historian's way of accounting for the origin and existence of the nation of Israel. It also bears theological messages: Yahweh has chosen Israel as his people through their ancestors, and Yahweh keeps his promises, albeit in his own time and way.

The major obstacle to the fulfillment of the promise of a great nation is the barrenness of Abraham's wife, Sarah (Sarai). The couple, at Sarah's insistence, seek to circumvent this obstacle by utilizing Sarah's handmaid, Hagar, as a surrogate mother. This practice is attested in marriage contracts from Mesopotamia, which stipulate that it is the wife's responsibility to provide an heir, if not on her own accord then by supplying a female slave for the purpose. The servant's son then becomes the heir as though he were the wife's natural son. The servant is not to flaunt her new status, and the wife may not expel the servant.32 See John Van Seters, “The Problem Childlessness in Near Eastern Law and the Patriarchs of Israel,” Journal of Biblical Literature 87 (1968): 401–8. The relevance of these contracts for the biblical story is obvious. In the story, Hagar bears Abraham a son. But God promises that the heir to the promise will come from Sarah, despite her and Abraham's advanced age. True to the promise, Sarah bears a son, who then replaces Hagar's son as heir. Contrary to custom, but according to divine mandate, Sarah sends Hagar and Ishmael away.

The two passages about the births of these two sons each contain an account of Hagar's departure from Abraham and Sarah and an encounter she has with God in the wilderness. In the Genesis 16 story, Sarah presents her slave, Hagar, to Abraham to serve as a surrogate mother. When Hagar becomes pregnant, she looks down on her mistress, who in turn mistreats her. As a result, the expectant Hagar runs away, apparently heading back to her home in Egypt. An angel or messenger (the same Hebrew word can mean both) from Yahweh meets her by a spring in the wilderness. The angel tells her to return to Sarah and submit to her. The angel blesses her with the same promise given to Abraham: “I will significantly multiply your descendants, so that they cannot be counted because they are so numerous” (AT). The angel tells her that she will bear a son and name him Ishmael. “He will be a wild ass of a man, with his hand against everyone and everyone's hand against him, and he will dwell over against all his kin” (AT). Hagar returns, as ordered.

In the story in chapter 21, Hagar and Ishmael are sent away by Abraham at Sarah's insistence and God's command. Ishmael is portrayed as an infant.33 Thus, Hagar carries the boy on the journey (21:14) and then casts him under a bush (21:15). This contrasts with some of the surrounding stories where he is at least thirteen years old. According to Gen. 16:16 Abraham is 86 years old when Ishmael is born. In 17:1, he is 99, making Ishmael at least 13 at the time Isaac is born in chapter 21. They run out of water in the wilderness. Certain that they are going to die, Hagar weeps. God hears her and speaks to her, showing her a well, so that she and her son are saved. The text then says that God was with the boy, Ishmael, as he grew up in the wilderness. He became an expert with a bow and married an Egyptian woman.

The two stories of Hagar's departure, then, are quite similar. In both, Hagar and her either unborn or infant son leave Abraham and Sarah and find themselves alone in the wilderness, where an angel appears to her at a water source and reveals to her the future of her son. The similarities are enough to suggest that the two are variants of the same story. However, the ending of the version in chapter 16 has been changed so that the two may be read sequentially.

The structure or form of the original story is still evident in the version in Genesis 21. A crisis arises when Hagar runs out of water. The crisis is resolved by divine intervention—an angel shows Hagar a water source. As the version of the story in chapter 16 now stands, there is no crisis. The story still takes place at a spring, but the spring no longer plays a role in the plot; it is simply a remnant of the original story. Another indication that the story in Genesis 16 has been altered is that the text repeats the identical expression, “the angel of Yahweh said to her,” three times in a row (16:9, 10, and 11). The insertion of the angel's order to return changed the original purpose of the story. The reason for the angel's appearance originally was to save Hagar's life and to reassure her by promising that God would make her son the father of a nation. The promise is preserved in some form in both versions. Following the promise, though, one expects to find a notice of its fulfillment, telling how Hagar and her son thrived in the wilderness because of God's blessing. The version in Genesis 21 has such a notice, but the one in chapter 16 does not. The latter simply has Hagar return to Abraham. The story of Hagar's flight in chapter 16, therefore, seems a literary adaptation of the story in chapter 21 for a new purpose.

The precise intent behind this literary composition is uncertain, but it may have been simply for dramatic artistry—to prolong the suspense of the narrative in its explanation of how Isaac became Abraham's heir through whom the nation of Israel came into being. As the story unfolds, Abraham becomes the father of not just one, but two nations—the Israelites and the Ishmaelites.

As with previous narratives that we have surveyed, these two contain numerous etiologies. There is constant play in these stories on the name Isaac, which ostensibly means “he laughs.”34 “Isaac” is probably an abbreviation of a longer theophoric sentence name, i.e., one that contained a divine element. Its original meaning was probably “God (El) smiles, is favorable” or “May God smile, be favorable.” Both Abraham and Sarah laugh when they hear the prediction that they, in their old age, will produce a son. Sarah remarks on the laughter that Isaac's birth has brought her. Then the very sight of Ishmael laughing reminds her that he is the heir and motivates her to demand that Hagar and Ishmael be sent away.35 The Hebrew text in 21:9 says that Sarah saw Ishmael “laughing” and determined on that score to send him away. Some English versions, like the NRSV, adopt the longer reading of the Septuagint (LXX) and render “playing with her son Isaac” or even “laughing at her son Isaac.” The shorter Hebrew reading, however, is comprehensible. Ishmael's laughter reminds Sarah that he is the heir rather than her son Isaac, whose name means laughter, and that is why she insists on Ishmael going away.

The etiologies surrounding Ishmael are more interesting. Ishmael's name means “God hears” and is occasioned by Yahweh's hearing Ishmael's “affliction” at the hands of Sarah. The characterization of Ishmael is really that of the Ishmaelites, whose eponymous ancestor he is. “Ishmaelites” is a term for several clans who inhabited the northern Sinai and Arabian peninsula.36 See Ernst Axel Knauf, “Ishmaelites,” The Anchor Bible Dictionary, vol. 3, 513–20. The characterization of Ishmael as a “wild ass of a man” who lives at odds with his neighbors suggests a view of the Ishmaelites as a rough and rugged people who carve out a living in hostile terrain, frequently warring with those around them. They also seem to have had a reputation as archers.37 An additional etiology is the one for Beer-lahai-roi in 16:13–14. Etiology may have shaped other details of the story. For instance, since the Wilderness of Paran, the home of the Ishmaelites according to Gen 21:21, lay between southern Palestine, where Abraham sojourned, and Egypt, the author may have deduced that Hagar was Egyptian.

In sum, the pair of narratives about Hagar's departure render an account to readers of the origin of the Ishmaelites. They also further the story of Israel's origins through the figures of Abraham and Isaac. Comparison of the two texts illustrates the extent of creativity sometimes exercised by ancient history writers in formulating their accounts of the past. The historian either composed the first version, the one in chapter 16, in its entirety or significantly revised its ending to have Hagar return to Abraham and Sarah. We will consider the creativity of biblical historians in greater detail in the second half of this chapter.

Esau/Edom and Jacob/Israel (Gen 25:19–34)

There is no clearer instance in Genesis of an eponymous etiology than the story of the birth of the twin sons, Jacob and Esau, to Isaac and Rebekah. When Rebekah is pregnant with them, she feels them literally struggling inside her within her womb. She asks Yahweh what is happening to her. The answer she receives in form of an oracle states that the twins are two nations or peoples. They are, in other words, eponymous figures. They bear the names of the nations they embody.

Both “Jacob” and “Israel” are used in the Bible as names for the nation. “Israel” is much more common, but “Jacob” is also occurs a number of times for the entire nation and people. A good example is Deuteronomy 32:9:

Yahweh's portion is his people;Jacob is the share of his heritage. (AT)38 Other texts referring to the nation as “Jacob” include Isa. 10:21; 17:4; 27:6, 9; Jer. 10:25; 30:7; and Ps 44:4 (Heb 44:5). It is especially common in what is known as 2 Isaiah (chapters 40–55), where it is frequently used in parallel to “Israel”: 41:8, 14; 42:24; 43:1, 22, 28; 44:1, 21, 23; 48:12, 20; 49:5–6. “Esau” refers to the nation in Deut 2:5; Josh 24:4; Jer 49:10; Mal 1:13; and throughout the book of Obadiah.

The Genesis narrative incorporates both names in reference to the same eponymous ancestor by explaining that Jacob's name is later changed to Israel (Gen 32:22–28). Similarly, Esau is more commonly known as Edom (Gen 25:29). Both names refer to the country south and east of the Dead Sea. The prediction in the oracle given to Rebekah when she was pregnant with the twins shows how the narrative identifies the nations of Israel and Edom with their eponymous ancestors. The oracle states: “the one people shall be stronger than the other people [so the Hebrew] and the elder shall serve the younger (AT).” Thus, the stories of the individuals, Jacob and Esau, are really the stories of the nations, Israel and Edom. Even the characterization of twins as they grow may really be of the peoples they represent. The Edomites, embodied in Esau, were hunters living in the rugged wilderness, while the Israelites, in Jacob, were more settled, tent dwellers.

The stories about Jacob and Esau and their depictions have been shaped by plays on their names and by traits that the historian ascribes to the peoples they represent. “Jacob” in Hebrew sounds like the noun for “heel” and like the verb for holding or taking by the heel or supplanting.39 “Jacob” is another abbreviated theophoric sentence-name originally meaning “God protects” or “May God protect.” Because this root has nuances of assailing from the rear by stealth, Jacob is portrayed throughout the stories about him as a trickster who gains by deceit. Hence, in the stories about his birth, Jacob comes into the world grasping his brother's heel, and he later supplants his brother in the role of oldest son by acquiring first his birthright and then his blessing by deception. Esau is described as red and hairy because the Hebrew word for “red” ('admônî) resembles “Edom,” and the word for “hair” (śē‘ār) sounds like “Seir,” another name for Edom. Similarly, in the subsequent story, Esau exchanges his birthright for “red stuff,” and this is the reason, the author asserts, that he was called Edom.40 The word “stuff” has to be supplied to make sense in English but is not actually there in Hebrew, which simply reads “red.”

By means of these eponymous stories about the births of Jacob and Esau, the historian in Genesis accounts for the origin of the peoples of Israel and Edom. Their description as twin brothers explains their geographical proximity, and the stories about their rivalry accounts for the friction between the two nations as well as Edom's eventual subordination to Israel. Esau/Edom is older and stronger than Jacob/Israel but loses his/its superiority to the latter's trickery.

The Sons/Tribes of Jacob/Israel (Gen 29:21–30:24)

As the Jacob story continues, the historian begins to focus less on Israel's place among and relationship to its neighbors and more on the identity and makeup of Israel itself. A key text is the story of the births of Jacob's children. Jacob's deceitful acquisition (with his mother's help) of his father's blessing occasions threats on his life from Esau, so that Jacob flees for safety to his mother's family. There he falls in love with his cousin Rachel and arranges to work seven years for Laban, his uncle, in exchange for marrying her. On the wedding night, however, Laban substitutes his older daughter Leah for Rachel, thus forcing Jacob to continue his servitude for another seven years.

The story is then structured around the two wives, Leah and Rachel, their two handmaids, and the children that all four women bear. God blesses Leah with children because she is unloved by her husband. As a result, Leah bears four sons: Reuben, Simeon, Levi, and Judah. Since Rachel cannot bear children, she provides her handmaid, Bilhah, as a surrogate, and Bilhah bears Dan and Naphtali. Leah, who has ceased bearing, also provides her handmaid, Zilpah, who bears Gad and Asher. Then, after eating mandrakes, a plant considered to endow fertility, Leah bears two more sons, Issachar and Zebulon, and a daughter, Dinah. Rachel, perhaps because she too consumed mandrakes but also because God remembered her, bears Joseph. Later on, Rachel will bear a second son, Benjamin, but lose her own life in the process (Gen 35:16–20).

The etiological nature of this birth narrative becomes evident when it is compared with the earlier story of Sarah providing her handmaid, Hagar, as a surrogate mother. As we saw in the discussion of that story, the practice of a wife furnishing a female slave for the production of an heir is attested in ancient Near Eastern sources. It fits perfectly in the Abraham and Sarah story, where the primary theme is the production of an heir in fulfillment of the divine promise to make Abraham into a nation. The situation with Leah and Rachel, however, is entirely different and completely unattested in ancient Near Eastern practice. There is no need for Rachel or Leah to give their handmaids to Jacob, because Leah herself bears four male heirs at the beginning of the story. Here the handmaid motif serves a different function on a purely literary level. It accounts etiologically for the twelve sons of Jacob, who are the eponymous ancestors of the twelve tribes of Israel. The author might have achieved the same purpose without the handmaids—by having Leah and Rachel bear all twelve sons. But the handmaids also add to the drama of the story by highlighting the competition between the wives.

The story of the births of Jacob's sons, then, is a literary creation intended to account for the origins of the twelve tribes that comprised the nation of Israel in the historian's day. The birth story is not history in the sense of actually having transpired, but it is an example of ancient history writing in that it provides an explanation for the origin of the tribes of Israel as they were in the author's day.

Israel's Relationship to God (Gen 32:22–32)

Having fled from his father-in-law, Jacob escapes reprisal as a result of divine warning to Laban. His gesture of reconciliation to Esau brings him news that Esau is on his way with four hundred men. Uncertain of Esau's intentions, Jacob divides his company in two, with his wives and children in the rear so that they can escape in the event of an attack. That night he is attacked by a man, with whom he wrestles until dawn. That the man is divine is indicated by the etiologies for the names “Peniel/Penuel” (face of God) and “Israel,” which the man explains by saying, “You have wrestled with God and with humans and have prevailed (AT).”41 Gen. 32:28. The putative meaning of “Israel” in this passage is “he wrestles with God.” Its actual meaning was probably “God (El) prevails, rules.”

This story is another piece of creative writing. It is full of word plays and popular etymologies. Besides Peniel and Israel, there is “Mahanaim” (two camps) and “Jabbok” (like Jacob and similar to one of the verbs for “wrestle” in the story). It also contains a series of folkloric motifs familiar to modern readers who are acquainted with the genre of fairy tales. The attack upon Jacob after he fords the Jabbok reminds one of tales of river demons and trolls (as in “The Three Billy Goat's Gruff”). The apparent need of the man to disappear before dawn also recalls tales of demons and spirits, and is most familiar to moderns in the Dracula story. The being's refusal to share his name reflects superstition about the power of knowing someone's name and is familiar from the story of Rumplestiltskin.

The focus of this collection of plays and motifs is the change of Jacob's name to Israel. The new name is obviously an eponym. The explanation captures Israel's identity as a people who have prevailed over adversaries by the help of their God, with whom they nonetheless continue to struggle. The intent of the story, then, appears to be to explain Israel's corporate identity in relation to its God. This identity is well illustrated by Israel's history throughout the Bible, which is one of continuous struggle with God, who constantly blesses. The story is theological as well as etiological in nature.

The stories about Jacob, therefore, not only account for Israel's relationship with Edom and the origin of Israel's twelve tribes but also for the character of the nation and people of Israel. The eponymous nature of the Jacob stories is not limited to Genesis. Consider the following quotation from the book of Hosea:

Yahweh has a dispute with IsraelTo punish Jacob according to his waysAccording to his deeds he will requite him.In the womb he seized his brother's heelIn his manhood he wrestled with God.He wrestled with God and prevailed.He wept and entreated him.At Bethel he found him/finds us.There he spoke with him/speaks with us. (AT)42 For the reconstruction of this poem, see Steven L. McKenzie, “The Jacob Tradition in Hosea 12:4–5,” Vetus Testamentum 36 (1986): 311–22. The Jacob story in Genesis may be based on Hosea or the poem he cites. See Willam D. Whitt, “The Jacob Traditions in Hosea and Their Relation to Genesis,” Zeitschrift für die Alttestamentliche Wissenschaft 103 (1991): 18–43.

Hosea cites an older poem about Jacob/Israel that was popular because of its eponymous nature. Hosea gives the poem a negative interpretation, accusing the people of Israel of trading in deceit like their forebear and namesake. Here we see that the eponymous nature of the stories of Jacob and others in Genesis was widely recognized by ancient historians and their audiences alike. To attempt to read these stories as actual events and deeds of historical individuals is to misconstrue their genre and their intent.

Notes:

17. Van Seters, In Search of History, 4–5.

18. Rudyard Kipling, Just So Stories: For Little Children (London: Folio Society, 1991).

19. The Hebrew Bible contains a number of references to sea monsters or dragons—cf. Job 7:12; Pss 74:13; 148:7; Isa 27:1; 51:9; Jer 51:34; Ezek 29:3; 32:2. In Canaanite mythology the sea god, Yamm, was envisioned as a dragon and referred to as Leviathan. The same mythological background is apparent in the passages that refer to the sea as a dragon or use the name Leviathan (Job 7:12; Ps 74:13; Isa 27:1; Isa 51:9–10).

20. The division between chapters 1 and 2 is unfortunate and not an original part of the text of Genesis, since the Bible was first divided into chapters and verses in the thirteenth century CE.

21. NRSV's “Then” in 1:11 is interpretive.

22. Again, the NRSV in 1:26 has “Then,” which is interpretive. The Hebrew text has “And.”

24. ’ādām occurs as a proper name in this story, i.e., without the definite article, only in 3:17, 21. The difference between definite and indefinite in those two instances is a single vowel that may very well have been accidentally miswritten. The rest of the time he is called “the ’ādām,” “the man.” The genealogy in 5:1 is the first truly clear instance of ’ādām as a proper name. Eve is named as such only near the end of the story (3:20).

25. See especially Phyllis Trible, God and the Rhetoric of Sexuality, Overtures to Biblical Theology (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1978). Trible contends that sexism and gender distinctions do not enter the story until the curse in 3:16. Her case falters on 2:23, where the man is already gendered and the woman taken out of him. However, Trible is certainly correct that subsequent tradition has introduced far more sexism into the story than is warranted by the text.

26. The word play here is with the Hebrew root nḥm. However, the name Noah actually comes from the root nwḥ, which still means “to rest, settle.”

27. For an overview, see Stephen R. Haynes, Noah's Curse: The Biblical Justification of American Slavery (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002), esp. 23–40.

28. The descendants of Cush in Gen 10:8–12 appear to be out of place. Nimrod (= Nimrud), Babel (= Babylon), Erech (= Uruk), Akkad, Shinar, Nineveh, and Calah are all in Mesopotamia, particularly the southern part of the region, so that one would expect them to be listed as heirs of Shem rather than Ham. The misplacement is the result of confusion over the meaning of “Cush,” which in addition to Nubia is sometimes used to refer to southern Mesopotamia because it was once ruled by people known as “Kassites,” whose name in Hebrew resembles “Cush.”

29. Again see Haynes, Noah's Curse. Unfortunately, Haynes dismisses the relevance of historical-critical scholarship of the Bible for countering this history of nefarious interpretation. His own response involves remythologizing Ham as victim (pp. 201–19), a strategy that is fanciful and uncompelling.

30. Abram and Abraham are variants of same name (like “Rob” and “Robert”) with no real difference in meaning.. The author in Genesis 17 imputes meaning to the change in an etymological etiology.

31. The nature of the wickedness of Sodom and Gomorrah is controversial. The men of the city want to “know” the two newcomers, an idiom for sexual relations. This is not, however, the same as sexual orientation as understood today. If it were, Lot's offer of his daughters would have been meaningless. The view of homosexual intercourse, especially in the form of rape, is unquestionably negative. However, the story cannot be construed as a blanket condemnation of homosexuality.

32. See John Van Seters, “The Problem Childlessness in Near Eastern Law and the Patriarchs of Israel,” Journal of Biblical Literature 87 (1968): 401–8.

33. Thus, Hagar carries the boy on the journey (21:14) and then casts him under a bush (21:15). This contrasts with some of the surrounding stories where he is at least thirteen years old. According to Gen. 16:16 Abraham is 86 years old when Ishmael is born. In 17:1, he is 99, making Ishmael at least 13 at the time Isaac is born in chapter 21.

34. “Isaac” is probably an abbreviation of a longer theophoric sentence name, i.e., one that contained a divine element. Its original meaning was probably “God (El) smiles, is favorable” or “May God smile, be favorable.”

35. The Hebrew text in 21:9 says that Sarah saw Ishmael “laughing” and determined on that score to send him away. Some English versions, like the NRSV, adopt the longer reading of the Septuagint (LXX) and render “playing with her son Isaac” or even “laughing at her son Isaac.” The shorter Hebrew reading, however, is comprehensible. Ishmael's laughter reminds Sarah that he is the heir rather than her son Isaac, whose name means laughter, and that is why she insists on Ishmael going away.

36. See Ernst Axel Knauf, “Ishmaelites,” The Anchor Bible Dictionary, vol. 3, 513–20.

37. An additional etiology is the one for Beer-lahai-roi in 16:13–14. Etiology may have shaped other details of the story. For instance, since the Wilderness of Paran, the home of the Ishmaelites according to Gen 21:21, lay between southern Palestine, where Abraham sojourned, and Egypt, the author may have deduced that Hagar was Egyptian.

38. Other texts referring to the nation as “Jacob” include Isa. 10:21; 17:4; 27:6, 9; Jer. 10:25; 30:7; and Ps 44:4 (Heb 44:5). It is especially common in what is known as 2 Isaiah (chapters 40–55), where it is frequently used in parallel to “Israel”: 41:8, 14; 42:24; 43:1, 22, 28; 44:1, 21, 23; 48:12, 20; 49:5–6. “Esau” refers to the nation in Deut 2:5; Josh 24:4; Jer 49:10; Mal 1:13; and throughout the book of Obadiah.

39. “Jacob” is another abbreviated theophoric sentence-name originally meaning “God protects” or “May God protect.”

40. The word “stuff” has to be supplied to make sense in English but is not actually there in Hebrew, which simply reads “red.”

41. Gen. 32:28. The putative meaning of “Israel” in this passage is “he wrestles with God.” Its actual meaning was probably “God (El) prevails, rules.”

42. For the reconstruction of this poem, see Steven L. McKenzie, “The Jacob Tradition in Hosea 12:4–5,” Vetus Testamentum 36 (1986): 311–22. The Jacob story in Genesis may be based on Hosea or the poem he cites. See Willam D. Whitt, “The Jacob Traditions in Hosea and Their Relation to Genesis,” Zeitschrift für die Alttestamentliche Wissenschaft 103 (1991): 18–43.

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