Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Mistakes of Moses Expanded Universe: Genesis 13

In this installment: Abram continues his Promised Land Sacred Shrine Confusion Tour; Moses reminds his audience that Canaanites live in Canaan; Yahweh makes a promise to Abram...again; and the city of agreement fails to live up to its name.

Genesis 13:1-4
Abram goes back to Bethel where the altar was and again calls on Yahweh there, further cementing a practice that will be difficult to overcome later when worship is supposed to become centralized in Jerusalem.

Again we have another odd remark from our supposed author Moses telling us that the Canaanites and Perizzites were in the land at that time. If this is really being written prior to entering the land, why would Moses need to insert this bit of clarification? Wouldn’t the Children of Israel wandering in the wilderness awaiting entry into the Promised Land assume as much? Doesn’t this remark make more sense if it’s from a time when there were no longer Canaanites and Perizzites in the land? Cue the "scribal insertion" excuse again for yet another anachronism.

Abram lets Lot choose which land he wants and Abram will go the other way. Lot chooses the doomed cities of the Jordan plain, leaving Abram with Canaan. Wasn’t Abram already promised Canaan anyway in 12:7? Just in case Abram forgot, Yahweh promises him again that he will give that land to his descendants and then inflates the promise a bit. It's important to note that these promises so far have not had any conditions attached to them for divine favor. This will not always be the case, as we will later see. Naturally, that will create problems for theologians who will argue about whether or not the nature of Yahweh's promises to Abraham are conditional or unconditional for centuries. The unconditional folks will focus on the promises made in chapters 12, 13 and 15 and the conditional folks will focus on what's said in chapters 17, 18 and 26. Others will make every effort to walk the line between them. But what if all of those theological contortions can be avoided by simply recognizing that we just might be dealing with different sources at different times with divergent historical and theological perspectives?

There he goes again building altars on high hills, under green trees and leafy oaks. Pottery shards from excavations of this site point to the existence of a Canaanite cultic shrine in use sometime as early as the third millennium BC. This is going to be really confusing for people later on when this practice is soundly condemned (Ezekiel 6:13). If you're keeping tabs, he's done this now at Shechem (the first capital city of the northern kingdom of Israel), Bethel (an important worship center under the northern kingdom of Israel), and now Hebron (an important economic trading center and the supposed first capital of the kingdom of Judah). By the time he's finished, nearly every important center of worship or commerce in the kingdoms of Israel or Judah will have an "Abraham was here and did something significant" story to point to. That's convenient.
Abraham acting in accordance with Deuteronomy 12:13

Just as a side note, making trees sacred was a good idea for nomadic people in arid regions. Trees provided much-needed shade in this dry area and one really practical way to keep people from just cutting them down and using them for firewood was to attach some sort of superstition to them. This is akin to the nobility perpetuating the superstition among their servants that breaking expensive mirrors would bring bad luck. It’s also why public pools perpetuated the myth that there’s a chemical they put in pools that can easily identify those who pee in them. Some silly superstitions and myths serve very practical ends and making trees sacred so people won't cut them down is one of them.

We are told here in verse 18 that Mamre is in Hebron. This seems like a benign enough bit of information. It's just some geographic clarification about one other place name in the Bible and not really worth much notice to any typical reader of this passage. There's nothing here worth pausing and pointing out about this simple little statement, right? Eh, not exactly. There are actually quite a few problems with Hebron that will surely escape the notice of most folks.

First, the usage of the name here is odd because Hebron is said to be the name of a descendant of Levi (Ex. 6:18, Num 3:19, 27, 26:58) and presumably the namesake of the Levitical Hebronites and one of the cities of refuge in which they dwelt.  But other passages make Hebron out to be the name of the grandson of Caleb from the tribe of Judah (1 Chron. 2:42, Joshua 14:14, 15:13) after it was assigned to him by Joshua. The writer/editor of Joshua 21:10-12 reconciles the cohabitational issues well enough with a parenthetical remark recognizing this, but never clarifies which patriarchal descendant got the right to change the name of the city from its former Canaanite name of Kiriath Arba to its Hebrew name of Hebron. Perhaps it was renamed after both a descendant of Levi and a descendent of Judah?

Regardless of whether the city was named after Caleb's descendant or Levi's descendant (or both?) the location would not have had its name changed from its Canaanite designation of Kiriath Arba to its Hebrew designation of Hebron until after the conquest, according to either of these accounts. Thus the renaming would've happened after Moses was long dead, giving us another anachronism for the idea of Mosaic authorship to overcome with its "scribal insertion" escape technique. The anachronisms are really piling up and we're only 13 chapters into the Pentateuch. That's an awful lot of scribal insertion. If that's really what's going on, these guys certainly don't seem to have had any reservations whatsoever about adding commentary to Moses' text, do they? That issue aside, the problems with Hebron don't end with this anachronism. We're just getting warmed up.

 Later in the biblical record we’ll get conflicting accounts about whether or not it was Joshua who drove the Anakim out of Hebron and utterly destroyed their cities (Joshua 11:21) or if it was actually Caleb who did it (Joshua 15:13-14) or if it was the people of Judah who did it (Judges 1:1-10) some time after Joshua was dead. Never mind that archeological evidence suggests that Hebron was hardly even occupied during the Late Bronze Age (1550-1200 BCE) at the time when all this conquering, naming and occupying was supposedly being done by either Joshua, Caleb or the tribe of Judah. And amidst all of this those pesky Canaanites just kept coming back like giant cockroaches, according to the biblical account.

Even though Genesis 13:18 is the first time the name "Hebron" has been used, we’ll later be informed on at least eight separate occasions that this place was also called Kiriath Arba* (Gen. 23:2, 35:27;Joshua 14:15, 15:13, 15:54, 20:7, 21:11; Judges 1:10) before it was given to both Caleb and the Levites. We'll also learn that Hebron was supposed to have been built seven years before Zoan/Tanis in Egypt according to another passage (Num. 13:22) [Indiana Jones fans should be familiar with Tanis]. Egyptian records put the founding of Zoan/Tanis at a date no earlier than the 11th century BC, around the time of Samuel. However, the writer of Psalm 78 seems to think that Zoan was already well-established by the time of the Exodus (Psalm 78:12), which is much too early for the founding of Hebron to coincide with the founding of Tanis. The hits just keep on coming.

It gets even better when we try to figure out which etiology to believe in explaining the naming of Hebron, apart from the earlier suggestions that it may have been named after either a descendant of Judah or a descendant of Levi. In chapter 14 of Genesis we learn that Abram was allied by treaty with Mamre and his brothers, suggesting that  the name Hebron may be referring to this agreement/alliance since Hebron literally means “joining”, “association”, “agreement” or “alliance.” There's more. In chapter 23 of Genesis Abraham will make another agreement with the sons of Heth to acquire a cave near Hebron, possibly suggesting that the name Hebron is a reference to that agreement.

So which agreement is it that this place is supposed to refer to? Who knows? It could be that in reality there was some other reason why this town was named "agreement" and it had absolutely nothing to do with Abraham and instead we are seeing within the text itself a sociopolitical clash between parties seeking to associate this town with either the beloved patriarch of all of the Hebrews or with the tribe of Judah or with the Levitical priesthood. All of those parties would've had various motives for this and all parties would have potentially had access to the sacred writings at various times and under various political circumstances.

It's possible that the name Hebron doesn't even have anything to do with any Hebrews at all. The nomadic Kenite clan, which settled among the tribe of Judah (1 Sam. 30:29) was long associated with the city of Hebron. The city could have been originally called Heberon after the Kenite Heber clan, whose supposed progenitor may receive mention in Judges 4. It's possible that all of these other stories about its founding and how it got its name just sprang up later among groups trying to lay claim to it. Not that any political, ethnic or tribal group would ever do that and just make stuff up about the origins of their city's name to try to establish a "rightful" claim to it. Right? Because that never happens in the historical record.

Needless to say, problems with Hebron abound in the biblical text. We have the anachronistic usage in this and other verses, the discrepancies over the accounts of how and when it was taken from the Canaanites and no less than four competing explanations for how it got it's name. It's positively comical how the biblical texts seem to disagree so much with each other about a place whose name actually means agreement. Surely such stark internal irony must be a mark of divine authorship.

A net installed in the Old City to prevent garbage dropped by Israeli settlers falling into a Palestinian area.
It's nice to see that the "agreement" continues to this day. (Source: Wikipedia)

*The name Keriath Arba means "the city of the four" and it presents in and of itself a whole mess of problems as a result of the competing traditions between the priestly class, the ruling class and the northern kingdom that we will deal with when we get to Genesis 23.

1 comment:

  1. This was incredibly neat. More "green tree" stuff, plus anachronisms! Remember "The Princess Bride," how the "S. Morgenstern" kept saying stuff happened before Voltaire but after Paris and whatnot?