Monday, December 16, 2013

Mistakes of Moses Expanded Universe: Genesis 24

In this chapter we see a bit of Love Ancient Hebrew Style, featuring all the typical trappings of an Ancient Near Eastern romantic comedy. And what shall we call this comedy? Romancing the Stoning? The 40-Year Old Virgin? Failure to Launch? One Funeral and a Wedding? When Isaac Met Rebekah? Sleepless in Beer Lahai Roi? Sweet Home Aramea? Purchase Actually? How to Buy a Bride in One Day? I'll let the reader decide.

Genesis 24:1-9
Isaac is 40 and still unmarried and living in his dead mother’s tent (v. 67). Abraham, who is now 140, decides it's time to find a bride so the young mean middle-aged man can settle down. Note that even though Isaac is 40, he's being treated like a youth. Abraham calls his chief servant and tells him not to let Isaac leave the land, as though a servant would have that kind of say over Isaac, a grown-ass 40-year-old man man who will one day own him once old Abe kicks the bucket. In normal cases a servant would only be able to exercise this kind of authority over an heir that was not yet of age.

Is it possible that the writer of this portion (typically identified as part of the Yahwist or "J source" by those who adhere to the Documentary Hypothesis) had in mind a much younger Isaac who was only then approaching marrying age? After all, the only way we know Isaac's age is by using material found in chapter 23 along with 25:20, both of which are typically passages attributed to the Priestly or "P source".  Incidentally, the P source also puts Esau at 40 when he gets married. Recall that we ran into a similar age-inappropriate problem in chapter 21 with a teenaged Ishmael being treated like a toddler.

If we're dealing with multiple sources and a compiler/redactor that either wasn't aware of the chronological problems being presented or who simply wasn't bothered by them, that certainly would explain things. I suppose that doesn't have to be the case, though. I mean, maybe people back then just took a long time to mature. Maybe they just aged differently or something. Yeah, that's it. Maybe Isaac really is just a 40-year-old manchild not yet capable of making his own decisions and had to have a chief servant placed over him. Maybe his older half-brother was only at the size and maturity level of toddler at 17. Maybe Sarah really was a stone cold fox at age 90. Sure. Let's go with that explanation over the obvious one. If you think all this age-related silliness is odd, just wait until we get to the Jacob narratives.

Speaking of Jacob, note that Abraham is emphatic about Isaac not being allowed to return to the land of the Arameans, alluding to the land promises of the covenant and viewing leaving the land as a threat to those promises. Abraham repeats the prohibition no less than three times in this passage. It's interesting, however, that Isaac does not appear to share these concerns at all later on when it comes to his own son, even though Jacob has just had the covenant blessings transferred to him.

Genesis 24:10-14
The servant heads off to the land of the Arameans with the requisite wealth for purchasing a good woman in those days, camels, gold and whatnot. He doesn't want to waste time looking for one, however. Instead he makes a deal with Yahweh and says the first girl that comes along who's willing to go above and beyond in the way of hospitality will be the one. Note that he doesn't ask for a miraculous sign. He asks for a rather ordinary arrangement of circumstances. I can only imagine how many people have made foolish decisions based on this kind of thinking.

Genesis 24:15-31
"A white woman in the Middle East!
Truly this is a miracle of Yahweh!
Rebecca at the Well by Giovanni Antonio Pellegrini
The writer is emphatic about how things play out. He clearly wants us to make the connection that this was Yahweh's doing. Before the servant says "amen", here comes a sexy young virgin with a water jug who does the very thing the servant had asked! This is the mark of a writer with an intended audience that clearly accepts the post hoc fallacy as a valid form of reasoning. This isn't surprising. This informal fallacy is the bread and butter of most religions and pseudo-science. It's why people believed that sacrificing a virgin would make the sun come back ("Look, guys, it totally worked again!") and why people still believe that things like intercessory prayer work despite scientific evidence to the contrary or that is, at best, inconclusive.

Genesis 24:32-49
Abe's servant meets the family and tells his story. There is no compression of the tale either. The entire narrative is repeated. The writer doesn't say that the servant told them what happened. Instead the writer gives us every last detail from the mouth of the servant.  I'm sure this is merely a convention of ancient Hebrew literature, but just in case, let's all pause and bask in wonder at the literary excellence of the divinely inspired writer who felt the need to repeat every. single. detail.

Genesis 24:50-61
Laban and Bethuel are sold on the idea. For them, this thing can't be a coincidence. Of course, they were quite literally sold on the idea by all the wealth the servant was going to pay them. The writer goes out of his way to portray Laban as the greedy and shifty Aramean that he is. It’s pointed out how he quickly notices all the gold Abe’s unnamed servant places on Rebekah. After the dowry is paid, he appears to try to trick the servant into leaving the purchased bride with them. Obviously the writer is playing to his audience’s prejudices and noting the kind of behavior that they would’ve deemed typical of those conniving, greedy Arameans. This will become even more clear when we find that Rebekah the Aramean is the one who hatches the plan to trick Isaac and especially later when Laban pulls a couple of fast ones on Jacob as well.

One has to ask, do interactions like these reflect what really happened to the Patriarchs, or is this more of a reflection of the attitudes that the original story-tellers had toward these other surrounding cultures? That does seem to be a recurring theme, whether it's dealing with the progenitors of the Canaanites, Edomites, Moabites, Amonites, Ishmaelites or Arameans. It's downright uncanny how these things seem to play out. It's almost like our story-tellers are projecting their own political and social realities on to these origin stories. Nah. That can't be it. These things really happened and Yahweh just providentially worked it out so that entire cultures would reflect these same cultural and political attitudes and circumstances. Yeah. That's it.

By the way, don't mistake verse 58 as a request for consent from Rebekah to marry. The deal was done. Money had already changed hands. What appears to have been left up to her is whether or not she wanted to leave right then or wait ten days. Much to her brother's disappointment, she opted for immediate departure. It's the classic story of a 40-year-old mamma's boy whose rich dad sends his servant to go buy one of his cousins and bring her back. The young girl decides no time like the present. How romantic. Seriously, people think this is a love story.

Genesis 24:62-67
Here's the really romantic part. Isaac sees the caravan in the distance. Rebekah also sees him and asks who he is and the servant tells her. She covers her face. The servant tells Isaac about what went down. He takes her into his mother's tent and bangs her. No marriage ceremony. No wedding. No courtship. Nothing. They went into his tent, he penetrated her, broke her hymen and sealed the deal originally struck between Bethuel and Abraham's servant. This is representative of traditional, biblical marriage.

We are informed that this blessed union brought comfort to the 40-year-old Isaac after the loss of his mother...three years after the loss of his mother...who died tragically when her life was suddenly cut short at 127 years old. Although, it's no wonder why Isaac shared such a special bond with his mother. After all, she was the parent that never tried to kill him.


  1. Pretty good post. I just stumbled upon your site and wanted to say that I have really enjoyed reading your site. Any way I'll be subscribing to your feed and I hope you post again soon.

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    The cap'n








    (in b4 "go home, Cassidy, you're drunk" except I'm not, just tired and dang it, there needs to be more Moses love or whoever we're up to by now)

    (captcha was "defined namoget" with which I wholly agree)


  6. If I’m correctly understanding your rather subtle comments, Cap’n Cass, I believe your point is that pushing three months on new content is unacceptable.

    Please accept my apologies. In addition to being busy with other endeavors, I’ve been chasing New Testament rabbits and reading more scholarship in that realm lately (currently devouring the Acts Seminar Report with Raymond Brown and a bit of Ehrman on deck). I’ll need to carve out some time and get back to the Pentateuch. I’ve started 13 drafts in the blog queue, but for some reason I can’t seem to bring myself to finish the drill on any of them.

    Thanks for the kick in the pants.

  7. You are correctly ascertaining my very subtle and humble requests. ;)

  8. So how bout them Acts Seminar Reports? - C

  9. Your sarcasm was firing on all cylinders for this one. Good stuff! :)

  10. I have an idea. The original bible elders and patriarchs are all really half to full elves. It's how they live so long. Just as plausible too. Also, one of the good Captains lurkers going on a binge read. Good stuff.

  11. Thank you for writing this blog, I really appreciate all the time and work you put into it, it's a pity that it hasn't got the exposure it deserves