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A description of jacob as the most mysterious of the biblical patriarchs

So last time we started discussing the historical merits of the biblical stories of the patriarchs and the matriarchs. These are contained in Genesis 12 through 50. Scholarly opinion on this matter is seriously divided; something you need to know. Some scholars will point to internal biblical evidence for the authenticity and the antiquity of the patriarchal stories.

So for example, Nahum Sarna argues that representing Abraham and Isaac and Jacob as foreigners and strangers in Canaan is hardly a convenient tradition for a people who are seeking to establish their claim to its homeland. And if this myth of origins were the fabrication of a later writer, then surely they would have written the story in such a way as to give their ancestors a less tenuous hold or claim, connection, to the land.

He also notes that some of the material in the patriarchal stories would be offensive to later religious sensibilities. Jacob is married to two sisters simultaneously. That is something that is explicitly forbidden in the book of Deuteronomy.

Also, he notes that the representation of inter-ethnic relationships in the patriarchal stories does not accord with the reality of a later period. So for example, the Arameans are considered close kin to the Israelites. And spouses are always chosen—daughters for sons are always chosen by going back to the Aramean people and choosing someone from close kin. They were bitter enemies.

  • So for example, the Arameans are considered close kin to the Israelites;
  • It encompasses all life on earth;
  • He was putting his brothers under test in order to ascertain their attitude toward their great sin committed against him;
  • This experience gave evidence of an intense conflict in his soul, a conflict which was bound to increase and would not be resolved until he would be reconciled with his brother Esau;
  • As in a later time, "The appearance of the glory of the Lord was like a devouring fire on the top of the mountain in the sight of the people of Israel" Ex;
  • At daybreak the man sought to leave Jacob but the latter replied, "I will not let you go, unless you bless me.

So why, according to scholars like Sarna, would a biblical author from that period portray the Arameans as close kin, unless they had some older tradition, established tradition that reflected that fact? So Sarna and other scholars hold that the patriarchal traditions are not entirely fabricated retrojections from a later period.

They contain authentic memories of an earlier historic situation. They lived in tents. From time to time, they wandered to Egypt or Mesopotamia often in search of pasture for their animals.

Prior to that, the Bronze Age, which is divided into these three periods.

Then on the other hand, at the other extreme, you have scholars who see the patriarchal stories as entirely fabricated retrojections of a much later age. And they vary significantly as to when they think these stories were written- anywhere from the period of the monarchy all the way down to the fourth century, some of them.

  • It was very fitting for the author of Hebrews to place Jacob's name among the heroes of faith, saying, "By faith Jacob, when dying, blessed each of the sons of Joseph, bowing in worship over the head of his staff;
  • Melchizedek, in type, represented a superior priesthood to that of Aaron's;
  • In the first place, this statement placed the matter of faith in a religious context;
  • If you can do all this, fine- you can be my God;
  • The use of the word "Lord" suggested the overwhelming meaning attached to the God who made the covenant with Abraham.

Works published in the 1970s by authors like Thomas Thompson, Jon Van Seters, take the position that these stories are filled with anachronisms, their chronologies are confused. These anachronisms and confused chronologies in the patriarchal stories are the rule rather than the exception in their view, and they are evidence of a very late date of composition.

So you have these two extremes based on the internal evidence of the Bible itself. But you also have the same two extreme positions reflected in the discipline of archaeology. In the early days, archaeology of the region tended toward credulity. And it was explicitly referred to as biblical archaeology—an interesting name, because it suggests that the archaeologists were out there searching for evidence that would verify the details of the biblical text.

I mentioned last time William F. Albright, an American archaeologist. He believed strongly that archaeological findings were important external evidence for the basic historicity and authenticity of, for example, the patriarchal stories. And certainly some archaeological findings were quite remarkable. Scholars of the Albright school pointed to texts and clay tablets that were discovered in second millennium sites.

So you see down on the bottom [of the blackboard] the second millennium BCE, obviously going down to 1000; first millennium- 1000 to 0. These texts and clay tablets were believed to illuminate many biblical customs and institutions. So in the Nuzi texts from about the middle of the second millennium, we learn of the custom of adoption for purposes of inheritance, particularly the adoption of a slave in the absence of offspring. Biblical scholars got very excited about this.

And this is something that happens with three out of the four matriarchs, who are afflicted with infertility- Sarah, Rachel and Leah. There are other parallels in family and marriage law that correlate with certain biblical details.

In the eighteenth century [BCE], the texts from Mari. They contain names that correspond to Israelite names- Benjamin, Laban, Ishmael. So biblical scholars, buoyed up by these correlations between the archaeological finds, the texts found by archaeologists, and biblical stories, asserted that the patriarchs were real persons and their customs and their legal practices and their social institutions could be verified against the backdrop of the second millennium as revealed by archaeological findings.

A lot of gap-filling is going on to make these texts look as though they correspond to biblical institutions. And skeptics like Thomas Thompson and John Van Seters point out that many of the biblical customs which are paralleled in Ancient Near Eastern sources were still alive and well down in the first millennium.

They could derive from anywhere in the second or first millennium. And for other reasons, they think it is much more reasonable to date the composition of these stories to the first millennium, in some cases, quite late first millennium. Furthermore, over time, many discrepancies between the archeological record and the biblical text became apparent. Increasingly, practitioners of what was now being termed Palestinian archaeology, or Ancient Near Eastern archaeology, or archaeology of the Levant, rather than biblical archaeology—some of these archaeologists grew disinterested in pointing out the correlations between the archaeological data and the biblical stories or in trying to explain away any discrepancies in order to keep the biblical text intact.

They began to focus on the best possible reconstruction of the history of the region on the basis of the archaeological evidence regardless of whether or not those results would confirm the biblical text, the biblical account. In fact, this reconstruction often does contradict biblical claims. Still, many people have clung to the idea of the Bible as a historically accurate document, many times out of ideological necessity. This is all really a very unfortunate and heavy burden to place on this fascinating little library of writings from late antiquity.

But to view it this way is to make a genre mistake. It is a work of literature. And in deference to that genre and its conventions, we know and accept that the truths it conveys are not those of historical fact, but are social, political, ethical, existential truths.

And the Bible deserves at least the same courteous attention to its genre.

  • A four-hundred-year oppression at the hands of another nation lay before them but God would fulfill His covenant of giving to his descendants the land of Canaan;
  • It stood for a spiritual cleansing.

To be sure, we do find that some events that are mentioned in the biblical texts correlate to events that we know of from sources outside the Bible. The destruction of the northern kingdom of Israel in 722, the capture of Jerusalem in 597, the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem in 586—these are all recorded in the biblical text and they are in Assyrian and Babylonian records as well; as well as other events from the period of the monarchy. So as a result, because of these correlations, many scholars are willing to accept the general biblical chronology of the period from the monarchy on- starting about 1000 on, they accept that general chronology; the sequence of kings and battles and so on.

But ultimately, it is a mistake, I think, to read the Bible as a historical record. The Bible is literature. Its composition is influenced and determined by literary conventions and goals. Now, of course we all know that there is no such thing as purely objective history anyway. We have no direct access to past events. We only ever have mediated access in material- archaeological remains that yield information to us only after a process of interpretation, or in texts that are themselves already an interpretation of events and must still be interpreted by us.

And to the biblical narrators, these events known perhaps from ancient oral traditions pointed to a divine purpose. The narrative is told to illustrate that basic proposition. The biblical narrators are not trying to write history as a modern historian might try to write history. But then all ancient historical narrative is written that way, and one could argue all contemporary historical narrative is written that way.

With due caution, we can still learn things from texts ancient and modern. So our discussion of the patriarchal stories is going to bear all of these considerations in mind. So what are these truths?

But they represent this emigration as divinely commanded. First we meet our cast of characters. This is in Genesis 11-27 on through chapter 12-3.


Haran died in the lifetime of his father Terah, in his native land, Ur of the Chaldeans. And Sarai was barren; she had no child. And the days of Terah were 205 years- then Terah died in Haran. I will bless those who bless you, and him who curses you, I will curse; and by you all the families of the earth shall bless themselves [source unknown].

So Abram is commanded to go forth from his home and family to a location to be named later, a location that remains for now unspecified.

And this is a fact that has caused commentators for centuries to praise Abram for his faith. He is seen as the paradigm, the paradigmatic exemplar of a man of faith. It was a seemingly irrelevant detail, whose import is suddenly clear.

You have the great a description of jacob as the most mysterious of the biblical patriarchs of knowing the ending. So Abram may be forgiven for thinking that perhaps some other mate awaits him.

And so he surrenders her easily to other men, to Pharaoh of Egypt immediately following this scene in chapter 11 [and 12]; immediately after that, in Egypt, he surrenders her. How cleverly the narrator leads us with Abram to pin our hopes on Ishmael as the child of the promise. And how cleverly is the carpet pulled out from under our feet in Genesis 17, when God finally, perhaps impatiently, talks specifics- No, I meant that you would father a great nation through Sarah.

And God is silent. And in that silence I always imagine that this light goes on- this click, this awful, sickening light. And Abraham says, O, that Ishmael might live in your sight! Or something like that. I think I probably misquoted. But God is determined. Sarah will bear Isaac and with him God will make an everlasting covenant. You have to get yourself into the mindset to read it that way. A few verses later, when Abram and his wife Sarai and his nephew Lot and those traveling with them all reach Canaan, God makes an additional promise.

And that establishes a narrative tension for the stories of the patriarchs, but also for the story of the nation of Israel in subsequent books. Israelite matriarchs seem to be a singularly infertile group. The process by which the promise is fulfilled is halting and torturous at times.