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“The beginning of God’s curse on Adam indicated that he fell because he heeded the voice of his wife, which contradicted God’s established order and represented the first biblical example of abandonment of male leadership responsibility.”
On the first or second day of every class, I explain to my students the difference between exegesis, or drawing meaning out of a text, and eisegesis, or reading something into a text. This is a clear-cut case of the latter. You can’t arrive at this interpretation by any kind of face-value reading of Genesis 3. You can only get there by importing a whole systematic theology of gender roles based on (let me charitably say) questionable assumptions about a host of linguistic, cultural, and theological issues.
By the way, did you know that neither Adam nor Eve are cursed in Genesis 3? The snake gets cursed in Genesis 3:14 (“cursed are you among all animals”) and the ground gets cursed in Genesis 3:17 because of Adam’s sin (“cursed is the ground because of you”). The linguistic similarities between these two declarations so parallel each other that any open-eyed reader ought to know what a “curse” looks like—and what one doesn’t. As far as the human beings in the story, there are no curses leveled, just frank warnings about what life will now be like in a sin-ravaged world.
I’m pretty sure I’ve met members of this group that seeks to ban the book of Genesis because of its questionable moral content.
(PS: For the humor-impaired, I’m about 95% sure this is a joke.)
Singers of Dirges
In addition to presiding over births, a wise woman may also have a role at the liminal time of a death in the community. This is also a role with broad cultural currency in the ancient world. According to John Gray, not only at birth but
at death too it is the women who play the significant part as, for instance, the professional “keeners” in Jeremiah ix, 16 ff., who incidentally are also called חכמות “wise women,” a term reminiscent of the Skilful Ones, kṭrt of the Ras Shamra texts. (John Gray, The Legacy of Canaan: The Ras Shamra Texts and Their Relevance to the Old Testament [Brill, 1957] 179)
In Jeremiah 9, the prophet calls upon the female mourners to lament for the coming destruction of Jerusalem:
Thus says the LORD of hosts:
Consider, and call for the mourning women to come;
send for the skilled women (חכמות) to come;
let them quickly raise a dirge over us,
so that our eyes may run down with tears, and our eyelids flow with water. (Jer 9:17-18)
Once again, I would advise readers that I am not implying we should understand all the Bible’s wise women as “professional” mourners, any more than I would claim they were all midwives. If you want to know what I think the “core” of ancient Israelite wise-womanhood was all about, you’ll find it in my first two posts (mothers, mediators). Having thus established the “core,” however, it is fruitful to explore as well some possible variations suggested by the roles wise women play in other ancient cultures.
In many ancient cultures mourning was a distinctively feminine function. The women who performed this function were often religious professionals. (I note in passing that all of the hospice workers of my personal acquaintance happen to be women.) In any event, mourning was often considered the domain of women. In ancient Israel as in many traditional cultures, women prepared the body of the deceased for burial: bathing it, trimming the nails, wrapping it up and applying perfumes and spices. Then, women led the public lamentation.
In the Ugaritic Legend of Aqhatu, for example, Anatu weeps for Aqhatu and perhaps also sings a dirge, accompanying herself on a lyre (KTU 1.19:I.1-8) (Hennie J. Marsman, Women in Ugarit and Israel: Their Social and Religious Position in the Context of the Ancient Near East [Brill, 2003] 523). Similarly, in the Legend of Kirtu there is reference to the dirges of female mourners that would soon be heard when Kirtu is dead (KTU 1.16:I.3-5) (Marsman, 523). In this same text, Kirtu’s daughter Thatmanatu’s mourning for her father is narrated in great detail—far moreso than the mourning of Kirtu’s son Iluha’u. “We may conclude,” writes Marsman, “that, although both men and women mourned the dead, women were more prominent in the performance of wailing rites, often in a professional capacity” (525).
In ancient Greece as well women—both professional religious practitioners and female family members—traditionally sung lamentations at a person’s death. Mourning was, in fact, one of the few ways women wielded public power in Greece. Some even theorize that Solon and other early Greek legislators condemned professional mourning precisely in order to restrain the public voice of women.
Women were no less the “mourners, musicians, and teachers” of Israel at times of bereavement (Angela Bauer, “Death, Grief, Agony, and a New Creation: Re-reading Gender in Jeremiah after September 11,” Word & World 22/4 [Fall 2002] 380). In the Hebrew Scriptures, we find women weeping, singing dirges, or reciting laments at public funerals in Judges 11:40 and 2 Chronicles 35:25 (where “singing women” are paired with “singing men”). As Jeremiah 9 reveals, the image of women dirge-singers was so culturally familiar that the prophet could evoke it to call the people to national lamentation. In the book of Lamentations, the fallen city of Jerusalem is itself depicted as a female dirge-singer (Lam 1:16).
As with the event of childbirth, it is perhaps possible to discern something of the “folk religion” surrounding death and dying in ancient Israel. This will be our focus in the section that follows.
The Cult of the Dead
No less than birth, death is a passage that seems in every culture to generate rituals by which a community reorients itself to new realities. Unfortunately, discussions of a “cult of the dead” tends to evoke images of occultism, rank superstition, or low-budget horror movies. My goal in the remainder of this post is to approach the topic phenomenologically. This means I won’t attempt to evaluate the beliefs and rituals of ancient Israelite folk religion in theological terms. (The Hebrew Bible condemns many of these elements; that doesn’t mean they didn’t exist. On the contrary, it is proof of their pervasiveness.) Rather, I simply want to approach these aspects of early Israelite faith on their own terms and hopefully discern their underlying internal logic.
By way of example, consider the following rituals associated with dying and the dead:
- Loved ones gather at the home of the deceased to sing hymns and recite prayers. A religious professional may conduct a brief ceremony involving additional hymns and prayers before sunset on the night before burial.
- The body is removed from the house feet-first in the belief that if the head faces backward the deceased may influence another member of the family to follow him or her in death.
- The body is carried to the burial site in a wagon pulled by steers or oxen. It is considered bad luck for a new bride to meet the funeral procession.
- Before burial mourners, even young children, honor the dead by stooping to touch or kiss the body.
- At the graveside a religious professional performs a lengthy, dramatic, and often emotional interpretation of the central myth of the cult. This ritual is meant to assure loved ones that the deceased has completed the necessary initiations to safely enter the afterlife.
- Offerings, most often flowers but sometimes other items of personal significance, are placed on or near the grave.
- Loved ones periodically return to the burial site, either on the anniversary of the person’s death or on public days of commemoration. At these times, additional offerings are performed.
- Though the dead are honored, they are also believed to pose a potential threat to the living. Surviving loved ones therefore light candles or lamps in their front windows to prevent the spirit of the deceased to return to their home.
- Charms may be worn or simple rituals performed to protect oneself from ghosts: throwing salt on the hearth fire, carrying the left hind foot of a rabbit caught in a graveyard, carrying a snakeskin bag containing a toad’s eye, etc.
Are these the beliefs and rituals of an ancient pagan culture such as Egypt or Babylonia? No, in fact they are part of the folk religion of conservative Christians—namely, the rural folk of Appalachia (described here, here, and here)—albeit described in more-or-less clinical language. Greater connection with the modern world has wiped out many of these traditions; others show no sign of going away soon. Offering flowers at the graves of deceased ancestors on “Decoration Day” (what most of the country calls Memorial Day) is still a significant tradition in many Appalachian families. None of these rituals has the slightest bit of biblical warrant, but that is precisely the point: humans invent rituals to help them to cope with mystery, and death is one of the greatest mysteries there is. Where the Bible is silent, folklore tends to fill in the gaps.
Therefore, let us examine the folk religion of ancient Israel with respect to death and the dead. Elizabeth M. Bloch-Smith has examined the archeological and Scriptural evidence for Israelite death customs (“The Cult of the Dead in Judah: Interpreting the Material Remains,” JBL 111/2  213–24.) Based largely on her work, the following patterns may be suggested:
(1) When a person died, he or she was honored with lamentation (2 Chr 35:25; Jer 22:18), the erection of a burial marker (Gen 35:20; 2 Sam 18:18; 2 Kgs 23:16-18; Isa 56:5) and sacrifices of food, drink, and other commodities (Isa 57:7, 9; 2 Chr 16:14).
(2) Remains of food and drink offerings are in fact prevalent in Israelite tombs throughout the Iron Age. Grave goods discovered in Israel and Judah include “vessels for foodstuffs, liquids, perfumes, spices, and oil for lamps, plus jewelry, tools, household and personal items, and talismans” (Bloch-Smith, 222). Such offerings, of which ceramic vessels were by far the most common, were thought of as a way of caring for the dead. A possible technical term for such care, פקד (pqd), is found in a number of Old Testament passages. In Mesopotamia, a paqidum was one who provided regular food and drink offerings for a deceased father or other relative (Bloch-Smith, 220). Bloch-Smith concludes,
Proper postmortem care (*pqd) was probably not a foreign practice but an integral aspect of Judahite and Israelite social organization. Moses denied proper care to the accursed Korahites (Num 16:29), and in a play on the root *pqd Jonathan attributed David’s absence in court to a trip home for a family ancestral sacrifice (1 Sam 20:6). (220–21).
(3) The dead were regarded as “divine beings” (אלהים, [‘elohim] in 1 Sam 28; Isa 8:19), possessing supernatural powers. Therefore—although the Deuteronomist(s) severely condemned the practice—they might be consulted through various types of intermediaries (see Isa 8:19), including human magico-religious specialists (“diviners,” “necromancers,” etc.) and cult objects such as the teraphim, often understood to be ancestral figurines. In this light, it may be relevant that there are a couple of stories where women traffic in teraphim. In Genesis 31:19, Rachel steals her father’s teraphim as she flees with Jacob and the rest of his family. Much later, Michal helps her husband, David, escape from her father, Saul, by hiding a teraphim in his bed as a decoy (1 Sam 19:13).
(4) In addition to divination, the dead were credited with the power to give life (Elisha’s bones, 2 Kgs 13:20-21; Hannah’s prayer for a child in 1 Sam 1:11—assuming this took place at some sort of ancestral sacrifice.)
(5) The dead may also have been thought vengeful and able to harm the living. Such a belief may explain David having the hands and feet of Ishbaal’s already dead murderers cut off (2 Sam 4:12). Was this done to avert the possibility of revenge from beyond the grave?
There may be additional oblique references to rituals associated with death and dying in the story of the wise woman of Tekoa (2 Sam 14). At two points in her encounter with King David, she uses expressions that suggest familiarity with the mortuary rituals of the wider Ancient Near Eastern culture.
First, she seems familiar with the use of cultic coals in exorcisms and purification rituals. As Michael S. Moore explains,
To communicate the depth of her dilemma the wise woman uses a revealing metaphor. She describes the clan’s demands as an attempt to “quench my coal which is left.” Rykle Borger has pointed out that this phrase is similar to an Akkadian phrase which describes a man without a family as one whose “cultic oven as gone out.” Thus it does not seem coincidental that the Hebrew word for “coal” in this text (gahelet) is also found in the Isaianic tradition in a passage mocking the use of cultic “coals” in Babylonian purification rites [Isa 47:14], or that the Akkadian word for “cultic oven” is a standard fixture in neo-Assyrian exorcistic ritual. (“‘Wise Women’ or Wisdom Woman? A Biblical Study of Women’s Roles,” Restoration Quarterly 35/3  154)
Another mourning ritual involves pouring out water upon the ground. At a later point in the wise woman’s exchange with David, she portrays Israel’s fate with the words, “We must all die; we are like water spilled on the ground, which cannot be gathered up” (2 Sam 14:14). This metaphor also seems to have its roots in the technical language of ancient mortuary cults. In the previously mentioned Legend of Kirtu, when Kirtu becomes ill he tells his son Iluha’u not to mourn for him. Instead, he entrusts this task to his daughter Thatmanatu “because she is well-practiced in putting ‘her water in the field…the issues of her lifebreath on the heights’” (Moore, 156). Although the Ugaritic ritual texts give few details, the metaphorical connection between death, mourning, and pouring out of water suggest there is some kind of connection. (Might a similar ritual lie behind David’s actions in 2 Sam 23:13-17?)
Bloch-Smith argues that although the Torah attempts to regulate the cult of the dead, it doesn’t try to abolish it outright. The concern of the prophets and preeminently the Deuteronomist(s) is with the centralization of the cultus at the temple in Jerusalem. According to Bloch-Smith, the temple personnel never denied the dead’s powers nor the people’s right to honor them. “Individuals could still feed the dead,” she argues, “but not tithed food” (see Deut 26:14). And though they might continue to consult the dead in private, they were forbidden to enlist professional help in doing so (223).
This reconstruction could be right or it could be wrong, but in any event it seems clear that not every aspect of Israel’s religion is codified in Scripture. For good or ill, certain rituals (prayers, songs, symbolic acts) and presuppositions surrounded birth, death, and most likely other liminal junctures. All of them fall under the rubric of “folk religion,” the informal beliefs and practices passed down from generation to generation quite apart from any official endorsement. For various reasons, women were often the bearers of these traditions. They were part of the “tool kit” of at least some of Israel’s wise women.
What, then of the darker or less savory aspects of this picture of Israel’s “cult of the dead”? In my concluding post, we’ll look at one last wise woman and the way she used officially forbidden rituals in the service of others.
At the end of my previous post I suggested that wise women (in the Ancient Near East generally and in Israel in particular) often performed their services on occasions marked by liminality, the betwixt-and-between of important life passages. In this post, I hope to raise awareness of the activity of some wise women at one particular liminal occasion: childbirth. In Mishnaic Hebrew, the word for “midwife” is in fact chokhmah, “wise woman” (Shabbat 18:3; Rosh Hashana 2:5). In many corners of the ancient world, there is a strong connection between midwifery and wise women. I don’t mean to imply that all Israelite wise women were midwives. Deborah or Abigail were not necessarily out delivering babies on the side! Nor am I saying that all midwives were “wise women.” But it is nevertheless fair to say that, based on ancient cultural patterns, there was a significant overlap between these two classes of people.
According to Babylonian mythology, for example, goddesses who act as midwives are called “wise,” which seems to indicate that midwives belong somewhere in the ancient category of “wise women” (Hennie J. Marsman, Women in Ugarit and Israel: Their Social and Religious Position in the Context of the Ancient Near East [Brill, 2003] 412).
Childbirth is a liminal experience for the baby, the mother, and the entire community. Everything changes when a new baby is born! Therefore, it is a time of potential spiritual danger as status and relationships get rearranged to accommodate the arrival of a new community member. In ancient cultures the liminal nature of childbirth calls for the involvement of women. John Gray explains,
It is perhaps natural that women should assist at birth, but there is a further reason, suggested by the fact, as among the modern Arab peasants, that the men including the father studiously avoid the very house where the birth is taking place. The fact is that in such a crisis the normal activity of the community is suspended and the men, who normally take the initiative, become for the moment nonentitites. In the Book of Ruth not only do the women assist at the birth but they hold the initiative right through until the time when they actually name the child and so integrate the new life with the community. (The Legacy of Canaan: The Ras Shamra Texts and Their Relevance to the Old Testament [Brill, 1957] 179)
The religious nuances of the midwife’s calling is underscored by the fact that, like the goddesses of Babylonia, God is also depicted performing the duties of a midwife (Ps 22:9; see also Isa 66:9).
Midwives are rather thin on the ground in the Bible, but they appear on a number of important occasions. The first story that may come to mind is that of Shiphrah and Puah, the Hebrew midwives in the time Israelite slavery in Egypt (Exod 1). Like the wise woman of Abel, these women stand up to powerful men and intercede in such a way that their people are saved from destruction.
By the nature of their calling, midwives in traditional cultures were often the doctors, psychologists, and family therapists of their village. In that light it is instructive to read S. D. Goitein’s composite portrait of a traditional Yemeni wise woman:
This is a woman who keeps a watchful eye on her fellow villagers from the day of their coming forth into the light of the world until their death. It is she who helps during childbirth; she who knows the remedies and other treatments…required in case of illness; she who assists in matchmaking and, when necessary, who makes peace between husband and wife. Her advice is sought not just by her family but by her whole village. It is she who is most proficient at whatever craft is practiced in the district, and she, too, who is the poet who “declaims” before the women at weddings and other festive occasions and in mourning as well. (S. D. Goitein, “Women as Creators of Biblical Genres,” Pretexts 8  10, cited by Cullen Murphy, The Word According to Eve: Women and the Bible in Ancient Times and Our Own [Mariner, 1998] 102, n. 21)
This picture harmonizes nicely with the themes of motherhood, conflict resolution, and liminality that we have already explored.
Midwives also appear in two stories from the patriarchal period. In Genesis 35:17, a midwife is at Rachel’s side to comfort her as she is in hard labor with Benjamin. More interesting in terms of the wise-woman tradition is Genesis 38:28, where the midwife at the birth of the twins Perez and Zerah ties a scarlet thread around Perez to identify him as the firstborn. Though ostensibly to mark which baby came out first, the use of red thread as a protective amulet for both mother or child is attested in Mesopotamian and Hittite texts. (Carol Meyers, Households and Holiness: The Religious Culture of Israelite Women [Fortress, 2005] 39; Marten Stol and F. A. M. Wiggermann, Birth in Babylonia and the Bible: Its Mediterranean Setting [Styx, 2000] 49, 56–58). Such customs are likely to have influenced Israelite practices. Indeed, tying a scarlet thread around the wrist of a newborn baby girl is a longstanding Jewish Kabbalistic practice intended to ward off evil spirits—despite the fact that the custom has been condemned since Talmudic times as pagan supersition (Michele Klein, A Time to Be Born: Customs and Folklore of Jewish Birth [Jewish Publication Society, 1998] 125).
Perez’s scarlet threat reminds us that in the Ancient Near East midwives had two categories of tasks. First, obviously, she performed the physical tasks involved in childbirth: preparing the necessary equipment, comforting the mother, and delivering the child. Second, she effected magical or religious protection of the woman and especially the newborn. Citing G. M. Beckman, Marsman explains, “[T]he midwife recites incantations on behalf of the new-born, beseeching the gods to remove evil influences and to grant a desirable fate to the child” (412). Midwifery is thus a religious vocation in the ancient world, surely no less so among the ancient Israelites.
In addition to the scarlet thread, we find hints of later Israelite birth rituals in Ezekiel 16:4: “As for your birth, on the day you were born your navel cord was not cut, nor were you washed with water to cleanse you, nor rubbed with salt, nor wrapped in cloths.”
The implication of this verse is that certain ritual actions were performed upon a newborn. While some of these are obviously matters of simple practicality (e.g., cutting the umbilical cord), others seem to be ritualistic in nature. The word for “washed,” for example, is used only here in the Old Testament. Meyers suggests it may be related to an Aramaic cognate meaning “to smear,” and may reflect the application of protective ointment. The “washing with water” may then have had ritual and not merely practical significance. This is certainly the case for “rubbing with salt.” The prophet is thus painting a picture of a newborn baby for whom the expected rituals of childbirth were not performed, thus leaving the baby vulnerable to the forces of evil.
Even in modern times, a Jewish midwife might recite certain customary prayers on the way to attend to a woman in labor (Klein, 125). She tries to calm the cries of the laboring woman through words of encouragement, prayers, or simple incantations (Klein, 123). Alice Bailes, a modern Jewish midwife, relates the following testimony of her experience:
There are psalms that I sing to myself in Hebrew when I am attending a birth. If the baby’s head is a little big for the mother’s bones and it has to mold to fit through I sing “Min Ha Metzar, from the narrow place I call to God and God answers me in this great expanse of space.” I think that my singing these prayers helps the baby come.
In addition, midwives were often specialists in folk remedies and incantations. Klein notes that “The old midwife, the bubbeh (Yiddish for “granny”) who served Jews in the shtetl a century ago, kept her incantations a closely guarded secret, for fear of destroying their potency (Klein, 124–25).
Just as women are present in ancient Israel at the time of birth, they are also present at the time of death and bereavement. Therefore, the next installment in this series will thus focus on wise women’s roles as mourners.
Robin Parry summarizes three papers on Genesis 1 by Paul H. Seely appearing in the Westminster Theological Journal in the early 1990s. According to Parry,
Seely comes from a Reformed evangelical background but, in these articles, he is reacting against creation science attempts to read modern scientific cosmology from the Bible. He demonstrates convincingly that the biblical authors presupposed an ancient cosmology and not a modern one.
Very interesting. Thanks, Robin, for bringing these to our attention.
… unless he’s completely AWOL, that is. Duane Smith has all the abnormal info.
The Second Lesson:
God promises to faithful Abraham that in his seed shall all the nations of the earth be blessed.
The angel of the LORD called to Abraham a second time from heaven, and said, “By myself I have sworn, says the LORD: Because you have done this, and have not withheld your son, your only son, I will indeed bless you, and I will make your offspring as numerous as the stars of heaven and as the sand that is on the seashore. And your offspring shall possess the gate of their enemies, and by your offspring shall all the nations of the earth gain blessing for themselves, because you have obeyed my voice.” (Genesis 22:15-18)
“O Come, O Come, Emmanuel”
Introit: “Once in David’s Royal City”
The First Lesson
God tells sinful Adam that he has lost the life of Paradise and that his seed will bruise the serpent’s head.
They heard the sound of the LORD God walking in the garden at the time of the evening breeze, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the LORD God among the trees of the garden.
But the LORD God called to the man, and said to him, “Where are you?” He said, “I heard the sound of you in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked; and I hid myself.”
He said, “Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten from the tree of which I commanded you not to eat?” The man said, “The woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave me fruit from the tree, and I ate.” Then the LORD God said to the woman, “What is this that you have done?” The woman said, “The serpent tricked me, and I ate.”
The LORD God said to the serpent, “Because you have done this, cursed are you among all animals and among all wild creatures; upon your belly you shall go, and dust you shall eat all the days of your life. I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will strike your head, and you will strike his heel.”
And to the man he said, “Because you have listened to the voice of your wife, and have eaten of the tree about which I commanded you, ‘You shall not eat of it,’ cursed is the ground because of you; in toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life; thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you; and you shall eat the plants of the field. By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread until you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” (Genesis 3:8-15, 17-19)
“Jesus Christ the Apple Tree”
Here is a post I’ve been meaning to get around to for many months but for whatever reason never quite got inspired to finish it. Several months ago Claude Mariottini drew my attention to this article by Leibel Reznick attempting to adduce archeological evidence for the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah (Gen 19). Obviously, people will have wildly differing opinions about whether it is even worth the effort to find such evidence.
Rabbi Reznick argues for identifying Sodom and the other “cities of the plain” mentioned in Genesis 14 and 19 with the ruins of five Canaanite cities south and east of the Dead Sea that were destroyed in some kind of fiery ordeal during the Early Bronze Age. Personally, I think chronological considerations makes it highly unlikely that this is the correct solution to the mystery. These cities were destroyed long before Abraham was even born. There are a number of lines of evidence that lead me to this conclusion:
Most scholars attribute the Middle Bronze Age IIA (MB IIA) culture in Palestine to the arrival of the Amorites (William LaSor et al., Old Testament Survey, 2nd ed. [Eerdmans, 1996] 39). One interpretation of Abraham’s migration from northern Mesopotamia to Canaan is that it was part of this larger movement of Semitic tribes into this region after the cultural collapse at the end of the Early Bronze Age. If so, then Abraham belongs in the MB IIA phase as well. Many Canaanite cities were abandoned during the last phase of the Early Bronze Age (EB IV) and the first phase of the Middle Bronze Age (MB I). The Amorites (including Abraham?) began settling in the region when the population was beginning to rebound. In absolute terms, this archeological period begins c. 2000 BC. It is roughly synchronous with the end of Egypt’s First Intermediate Period and the beginning of the so-called Middle Kingdom.
(Note: Long-time readers may know I have a beef with the way ancient chronology has been put together. In this post, however, the archeological strata matter more than the absolute dates, and therefore all dates given according to the “conventional” chronology.)
The Battle of Four Kings vs. Five
The best guess for the incursion of Mesopotamian and Syrian armies against the ‘cities of the plain” described in Genesis 14 is roughly between 2000–1800 BC: between fall of the Ur III dynasty and rise of Hammurabi. Elam did indeed have a period of dominance in this era, during which such an expedition led by an (otherwise unattested) Elamite king would have been feasible. This era was brought to an end by Hammurabi, whose reign began in 1728 BC (“Low Chronology”) or 1792 (“Middle Chronology”). During this era, “power alliances” such as we see in Genesis 14 were common. According to Kenneth Kitchen,
the system of power-alliances (four kings against five) is typical in Mesopotamian politics within the period c. 2000-1750 BC, but not before or after this general period when different political patterns prevailed. In the eighteenth century BC, for example, a famous Mari letter mentions alliances of ten, fifteen and twenty kings. At least five other Mesopotamian coalitions are known from the nineteenth/eighteenth centuries BC. (Ancient Orient and Old Testament [InterVarsity, 1966] 45)
Thereafter (i.e., beginning with Hammurabi), Elam was able to attain territorial gains only for short periods of time until the demise of the Babylonian empire. It would, therefore, have been both strategically unwise and tactically difficult for an Elamite ruler in later periods to have taken on such a task.
When might Abraham have visited Egypt (Gen 12)? One theory first (to my knowledge) suggested by F. C. Cook in the nineteenth century suggests connections with the early Twelfth Dynasty, either during the reign of Amenemhat I (1991–1962 BC) or his successor, Senuseret I (1971–1926). The evidence is as follows:
A. Parallels with the Tale of Sinuhe point once again to MB IIA (early Twefth Dynasty) as the era of the early patriarchs. The Tale of Sinuhe depicts the reign of Senuseret I after the death of his father, Amenemhat I.
(1) Genesis 12:10-20 depicts Abram entering Egypt and later being escorted to the border. Sinuhe refers to a line of fortifications on the eastern border of the Delta. Could this be the “Shur which is opposite Egypt” (Gen 25:18; 1 Sam 15:7; cf. Gen 16:7)?
(2) In both Genesis and Sinuhe the residents of Canaan are still organized in tribes with a pastoral lifestyle, suggesting the region is still in disarray following the collapse of the Early Bronze Age civilization. Pasturage and wells are key concerns, again as in the patriarchal narratives of Genesis. Sinuhe describes wealthy sheikhs living in tents, with livestock and household retainers/fighting men. Likewise, Abraham had 318 fighting men; Esau later had 400.
B. The Beni Hassan wall painting depicts an Asiatic (Semitic) caravan visiting Egypt in Yr 6 Senuseret II (1892 BC). Perhaps a hundred years after Abraham, this scene might be roughly contemporary with Jacob and his family entering Egypt.
The Destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah
Finally we come to the question of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. There are basically three options for locating these cities archeologically. Some identify Sodom with Bab edh-Dhra in the southeastern quadrant of the Dead Sea—or with nearby Numeira, which is Reznick’s conclusion. Steven Collins is a vocal supporter of the theory that Sodom is the site known as Tall el-Hammam in the northeastern quadrant. Finally, there is the classical belief that Sodom is currently underwater near En-Gedi, in the southwest quadrant of the Dead Sea.
Many archaeologists have looked for the remains of Sodom in the region around the southern tip of the Dead Sea, either under the shallow waters there or in the nearby ruins of Bab edh-Dhra. A number of factors favor a southern location. The site is a mere sixteen miles from Tell es-Safi, the traditional site of Zoar, to which Lot fled in a matter of hours before the destruction of Sodom (Gen 19:15, 23). The southern shore of the Dead Sea is famous for its bitumen pits (Gen 14:10), and there are also petroleum and sulfur deposits, reminiscent of the “sulfur and fire” that fell upon the city (Gen 19:24). The northern Dead Sea region does not have bitumen, oil, or sulfur.
The traditional identification has come under fire in the past dozen years by Dr. Steven Collins, dean of the College of Archeology and Biblical History at Trinity Southwest University in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Beginning in 1996, Collins began to question the traditional site. He is now convinced the remains of Sodom are to be found at Tall el-Hammam in Jordan. (“Tall” is the accepted Jordanian equivalent of “Tell,” usually used for sites in Israel.)
Collins argues that “the Bible clearly says they were located on the eastern edge of the Jordan Disk, that well-watered circular plain of the southern Jordan Valley just north of the Dead Sea.” Furthermore, Bab edh-Dhra was destroyed too early, at the end of the Early Bronze Age (c. 2300 BC).
Unfortunately, Tall al-Hammam was almost certainly destroyed too late to be the city of Sodom. According to the reports of Collins’s team, the site has a good representation of MB IIA, B, and C, meaning it could not have been destroyed much earlier than the end of the Middle Bronze Age, c. 1600 BC. A MB IIC destruction is completely out of sync with other evidence favoring a MB IIA date for Abraham.
We are therefore apparently left with the traditional site of Sodom, which has recently been defended by Marcus Laudien (“Sodom and the Dead Sea,” Journal of the Ancient Chronology Forum 9  85–90). In ancient times it was assumed that Sodom was formerly located in the southwest quadrant of the Dead Sea. Dio Chrysostom (3:2) places the site of ancient Sodom “very near” to a community of Essenes which might very well be En-Gedi (see also Pliny the Elder, Natural History 5.15.73). Quoting Poseidonius, Strabo describes the Dead Sea region thus:
… near Moasada [=Masada] are to be seen rugged rocks which have been scorched, as also, in many places, fissures and ashy soil, … and therefore people believe the oft repeated assertions of the local inhabitants, that more than thirteen inhabited cities were in that region for which Sodom was the metropolis. But those outside a circuit of about sixty stadia [=about 6.9 miles] of that city escaped unharmed, and that by reason of earthquakes and of eruptions of fire and hot waters containing asphalt and sulphur, the lake burst its bounds, and rocks were enveloped with fire. And, as for the cities, some were swallowed up and others were abandoned by those who were able to escape. (Geography 16.2.43)
Much later, Stephen of Byzantium mentioned in his Ethnikon that En-Gedi was an oasis in the vicinity of “Sodom of Arabia” and that Sodom is now covered by the water of the “Salt Sea” (Laudien, 89).
Where, then, does this leave Abraham’s Sodom? According to Genesis 14:3, the Dead Sea (or at least part of it) was once called “the Valley of Siddim”—in other words, it was once dry land. Geologists have, in fact, analyzed radio-nuclides in Dead-Sea sediments to determine lake levels in prehistoric times (Laudien, 88). They conclude that the area of the Dead Sea increased greatly during the MB IIA period, after c. 2000 BC. During earlier times, large areas of today’s Dead Sea were dry, especially the southern basin, which is shallower than the larger northern basin. During the Iron Age and into the early Middle Ages, the Dead Sea was once again confined to the northern basin.
In 1978, geologists used sonar to map the topography of the Dead Sea. This project revealed an elevation on the lake bed 2.4 miles south of En-Gedi, not far from the mouth of the Nahal Hever gorge. About 0.6 miles further south geologists discovered a crater that might have once been a large bitumen quarry. Laudien levels archeological evidence suggesting there is an as-yet undiscovered population center near En-Gedi that prospered throughout the Chalcolithic and Early Bronze periods. Might this center currently be underwater? Might it be the city the Bible calls Sodom?
The most likely era in which Abraham might have lived is Middle Bronze IIA. This was the period of Amorite incursions, a possible (though not uncontested) interpretation of Abraham’s social location. The battle of four invading kings against a five-king alliance of “cities of the plain” most likely took place in the window of optimum opportunity for such an Elamite incursion, also MB IIA (or possibly very late EB). Finally, comparisons with the Tale of Sinuhe and the pictorial evidence of Semitic immigrants in Egypt during the Twelfth Dynasty also point to an MB IIA horzon. In conventional terms, therefore, Abraham most likely lived some time between 2000–1800 BC. I’m inclined to place him in the earliest portion of this time span, during the reign of Amenemhat I.
If this is so, both of the two leading candidates for the location of ancient Sodom must be eliminated. Bab edh-Dhra (along with Numeira) was destroyed in the Early Bronze Age, at least 300 years before Abraham entered Canaan. Tall el-Hammam was destroyed in the MB IIC period, at least two to three hundred years too late.
Although nothing can be proven, I think the most likely location of Sodom is underneath the waters of the Dead Sea, on an elevation approximately two and a half miles south of En-Gedi, near the mouth of Nahal Hever gorge. When the Dead Sea began to expand during the MB IIA period (i.e., the time of Abraham and thereafter), this site eventually became submerged for a thousand years. It once again appeared during the time of Israel’s monarchy then re-submerged in since medieval times. Currently, the Dead Sea is once again drying up because of widespread irrigation, and it is possible that the curious lake-floor features that Laudien points out may become available for archeological investigation.
The Lukan and Matthean accounts of Jesus’ genealogy diverge after David. Matthew traces Jesus’ line through Solomon (and thus traces the royal Davidic line as it is found in the Bible and in Seder Olam). Luke traces a line through Nathan, also a son of David by Bathsheba.
The two lines come together once more in the generations following the deportation to Babylon, where both lines include Shealtiel (Greek, Salathiel) and his son, Zerubbabel (Mt 1:12; Lk 3:27). The generations around Shealtiel and Zerubbabel mark the first major dilemma in untangling the genealogy of Jesus. Three problems may be noted:
- In Matthew, Shealtiel’s father is Jechoniah (aka Jehoiachin). In Luke, Shealtiel’s father is Neri.
- In both Matthew and Luke, Shealtiel is the father of Zerubbabel. In 1 Chronicles 3:19, however, the father of Zerubbabel is Pedaiah.
- Following Zerubbabel, the genealogies of Jesus once again diverge, with Matthew tracing a lineage through Abiud and Luke tracing a lineage through Rhesa. Presumably, these are two sons of Zerubbabel. In 1 Chronicles 3, however, the sons of Zerubbabel are listed as Meshullam and Hananiah.
Let us take these issues one at a time.
The Father of Shealtiel
As with Joseph himself, the Matthean and Lukan genealogies both purport to identify the father of Shealtiel, but the two lists disagree! Is Jehoiachin the father of Shealtiel, or is Neri? Seder Olam follows the Old Testament in describing Jehoiachin as the father of Shealtiel with no apparent need for any elaboration on the matter. Luke complicates matters by adding Neri son of Melchi (and his immediate ancestors) to the mix.
Is there any reason to question Jehoiachin’s paternity? Jereremiah 22:30 reports that Jehoiachin (called Coniah in this passage) was condemned to die childless:
Thus says the LORD:
Record this man as childless,
a man who shall not succeed in his days;
for none of his offspring shall succeed
in sitting on the throne of David,
and ruling again in Judah.
The early death of Jehoiachin’s son Zedekiah may well have been understood to be the fulfillment of this curse. But if Jehoiachin was childless, this fact at least raises the possibility that, while Shealtiel was the legal heir of Jechoniah, he was not his biological descendant. How can this be?
In Hebrew thought it was a terrible fate for a man to perish without sons to carry on his name. Therefore, several strategies are described in the Old Testament for avoiding this situation:
- If a man died childless, the custom of levirate marriage provided for his widow to marry his brother. (Levir is the Latin word for “brother-in-law.”) The firstborn son of this union was legally reckoned to be the son of the dead man (Deut 25:5-6).
- If a man had daughters but no sons, the custom of Zelophehad adoption permitted him to legally adopt the husband of his oldest daughter (Num 36:1-13), provided they marry within the tribe of their father. The children of this marriage would be considered the grandchildren of their mother’s father.
- If a woman was unable to conceive, there was a custom in the patriarchal period whereby she would provide her husband with a female slave by whom to father children (Gen 16:1-2, 30:1-4). There is no evidence this custom prevailed into exilic or postexilic times.
In light of ancient marriage customs, there are a number of ways a son could be reckoned the legal heir of a man who was not his biological father. This include:
1. Levirate marriage. One possibility is that, once Jehoiachin was imprisoned in Babylon, his wife contracted a levirate marriage with Neri. The firstborn child of this union, Shealtiel, would legally be the heir of Jehoiachin. But one must then ask why there are six others also listed as sons of “Jechoniah the captive” in 1 Chronicles 3. By the levirate custom, the children after Shealtiel would be considered merely sons of Neri and would not appear in the 1 Chronicles genealogy at all.
2. Zelophehad adoption. By this theory, Neri was Shealtiel’s grandfather—the father of his mother. If Neri had no sons, the Zelophehad custom permitted him to adopt the sons of his eldest daughter. If this daughter were married to Jehoiachin, then Shealtiel could be called both the son of Jehoiachin and the son of Neri. By this theory, the line from Shealtiel back to Nathan (Lk 3) represents the ancestry of Shealtiel’s mother, while the line back to Solomon (Mt 1) represents that of his father.
3. Simple adoption. It is possible that Shealtiel was adopted by Neri after the death of Jehoiachin. Assuming he was a minor at the time, Neri may have taken him into his home and raised him as his son. Thus, though biologically the son of Jehoiachin, he became the legal heir of Neri, his distant relative. Alternatively, the adoption might have gone in the other direction. Although I cannot vouch for its accuracy, the Loeb family tree website, a compendium of ancient Jewish (and specifically Davidic) genealogy, offers the following explanation:
King Jeconiah…married Tamar, his cousin, her second marriage, the daughter of the late crown-prince, Johanan, his uncle [i.e., a previously unknown son of King Josiah—DJP], and begot Zedekiah, the crown-prince. The early death of the crown-prince was the fulfillment of “Coniah’s Curse”, placed on King [Je]Coniah’s off-spring by Jeremiah “The Prophet”.
The king adopted his step-sons, the sons of his wife, Tamar, by a previous marriage since they too were of the “royal seed”, that is, her first husband was a Davidic prince.
Some of the details of this report are questionable. Most blatantly, Zedekiah was the son of Josiah and thus the uncle of Jehoiachin, not his son! The remainder is logically coherent, although certainly not proven. For what it’s worth, this report means Neri’s mother later went on to marry Jehoiachin. The king subsequently adopted Neri and Tamar’s children after the death of his own son, Zedekiah (presumably after his release from prison in Babylonia in 561 BC).
I leave it to the reader to decide which, if any, of these alternatives makes the most sense of the data.
According to the book of Jeremiah, God pronounced a curse on Jehoiachin’s line. This is most clearly expressed in Jeremiah 22:28-30. There God declares that none of Jehoiachin’s offspring would ever sit on David’s throne. Jeremiah 36:30 makes a similar pronouncement concerning Jehoiachin’s father Jehoiakim. Some scholars take this pronouncement to describe a permanent condemnation of Jehoiachin’s line. Others believe that Jeremiah’s words were only intended for the near future—the lifetime of Jehoiachin himself.
The theory that the curse upon Jehoiachin was only temporary is buttressed by several facts recorded in the Bible and early Jewish tradition. First, Jehoiachin apparently repented while in exile. The last chapter of 2 Chronicles records how he was elevated from prison and given special honors at the Babylonian court. Although he was not permitted to return to Judah, he is recognized by the Jews as the first Exilarch or ruler of the exiled community in Babylon.
Second, there are also rabbinic sources that indicate God removed the curse on Jehoiachin, which they attribute to his repentance while in prison. For example, according to Leviticus Rabbah 19:6:
The Holy One, blessed be He, then said: “In Jerusalem you did not observe the precept relating to issues, but now you are fulfilling it,” as it is said, As for thee also, because of the blood of thy covenant I send forth thy prisoners out of the pit (Zech 9:11) [which means], You have remembered the blood at Sinai, and for this do “I send forth thy prisoners.” R. Shabbethai said: He [Jeconiah] did not move thence before the Holy One, blessed be He, pardoned him all his sins. Referring to this occasion Scripture has said: Thou art all fair, my love, and there is no blemish in thee (Song 4:7). A Heavenly Voice went forth and said to them: ‘Return, ye backsliding children, I will heal your backslidings'” (Jer 3:22).
Pesiqta Rabbati 47 records the following:
R. Joshua ben Levi, however, argued as follows: “Repentance sets aside the entire decree, and prayer half the decree. You find that it was so with Jeconiah, king of Judah. For the Holy One, blessed be He, swore in His anger, As I live, saith the Lord, though Coniah the son of Jehoiakim king of Judah were the signet on a hand, yet by My right—note, as R. Meir said, that it was by His right hand that God swore—I would pluck thee hence (Jer 22:24). And what was decreed against Jeconiah? That he die childless. As is said Write ye this man childless (Jer 22:30). But as soon as he avowed penitence, the Holy One, blessed be He, set aside the decree, as is shown by Scripture’s reference to the sons of Jeconiah”—the same is Assir—Shealtiel his son, etc. (1 Chron 3:17). And Scripture says further: In that day … will I take thee, O Zerubbabel…the son of Shealtiel…and will make thee as a signet (Hag 2:23). Behold, then how penitence can set aside the entire decree!
According to these sources, the curse was lifted because of Jehoiachin’s repentance. (See also b.Sanhedrin 37b-38a; Pesiqta de Rab Kahana; and Numbers Rabbah 20:20.)
In any event, the Bible is unanimous in casting Zerubbabel as the rightful heir and legal successor of Jehoiachin. Later rabbinic speculation insisted in no uncertain terms that the Messiah would be a descendant of Zerubbabel. The medieval Tanhuma Genesis states:
Scripture alludes here to the verse, “Who art thou, O great mountain before Zerubbabel? Thou shalt become a plain” (Zech 4:7). This verse refers to the Messiah, the descendant of David…. From whom will the Messiah descend? From Zerubbabel.
Any plausible claim on behalf of Jesus’ messiahship would have to involve descent from Zerubbabel (Hag 2:21-23), regardless of any irregularities surrounding the legacy of his grandfather Jechoiachin.