Some OT Background Stuff

Note: WordPress tells me today is my tenth anniversary on this blog.

Ref: Genesis 25-28 — I was discussing Genesis with a friend this week and remembered some background stuff that confuses most people about the Patriarchs — Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. They were not Hebrews as we think of it, but highly influenced by Abraham’s Mesopotamian background. Near as we can tell, he was either some kind of Aramean or Akkadian. In either case, the term designates a linguistic and cultural background, not so much a nation or tribal affiliation. However, we do know that these were very long-lived folk. Their ages at death are not at all out of line with noble/priestly folks from southern Mesopotamia. This meant their longevity was far greater than was common among Canaanite nations. Thus, Abraham and his kind were treated with some reverence by the locals.

Abraham was regarded as a prince, with his own substantial private army. He was still just one of a whole class of nomadic petty lords who didn’t hold territory with proper political boundaries. Instead, they moved into areas where there wasn’t any other large groups consuming the local resources, and spread out their herds. When scouts noticed a better area, they packed up the numerous tents and loaded the wagons. The areas Abraham sojourned were unsettled for the most part, and his camp was a small town with everything necessary for life done in-house. In almost every scene in the narrative, the principle figures were seldom alone. There were always servants and slaves, along with children, and often other relatives. They simply aren’t mentioned unless germane to the story. You should read the Old Testament under the assumption that no was alone unless the narrative specifically says so.

Abraham traveled from Padan-aram down through the unpopulated central highlands of Palestine with that vast household of armed men and servants, and all those domesticated animals. It was quite a caravan with hundreds of humans and wagons. The idea that Jacob traveled back up to Padan-aram alone is ludicrous. He had at least one armed bodyguard, and probably a couple of servants. That’s just for someone traveling in a hurry. More deliberate travel was undertaken with a substantial entourage. To the ancient reader, all of this would have been obvious and not worth mentioning. So if you read the passage where Esau comes in famished and encounters Jacob making stew, the more accurate image is Jacob supervising servants making the stew, and Esau walking in with at least one servant behind him.

Don’t get the idea Jacob was a prissy mama’s boy; by age 12 every noble boy was required to start training in arms. The biblical image is a man who focused on domestic stability and managing the daily operations of the household. It wasn’t exceptional, but quite common among educated and civilized men. Esau was the oddball, and frankly irresponsible. Remember that in Hebrew culture, a hunter was not a model for kingship, but a shepherd. You can be sure Jacob knew about herding sheep, if you consider his conversation with the shepherds at the watering hole near Haran.

Keep in mind that when Genesis refers to “Philistines” down on the coast it’s not a lie, but using current terms. The actual Philistine people didn’t arrive on the Palestinian coast prior to about 1300 BC, almost 1000 years after Abraham’s time. Hebrew people centuries later would not have recognized the ancient names for the tribes living in the coastal region back then, so when the records were copied (either by royal scribes or priestly scribes in the Temple) for later generations, the text was updated. The name “Philistines” was inserted so everyone would recognize the geographic reference (roughly Gaza today). The Patriarchs didn’t meet the actual Philistines, but whomever lived there before the Philistines invaded.

You cannot read an ancient Hebrew text with modern Western thinking and expect to understand it.

About Ed Hurst

Disabled Veteran, prophet of God's Laws, Bible History teacher, wannabe writer, volunteer computer technician, cyclist, Social Science researcher
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4 Responses to Some OT Background Stuff

  1. Iain says:

    Re, last sentence. That should be painlessly obvious, however it’s painfully obvious they are wearing spiritual blinders. The Atheist; the non-religious researcher and archaeologist can see that these Hebrews were a peculiar people, even with their western education. It’s the religious scholars* who insist in fitting the likes of Abraham into a western box.
    * The “they” I refer to in my opening. Too late to refine, sorry, first draft will have to suffice.


  2. Ed Hurst says:

    Yes, Iain, it’s the psychology of vested interest. “They” come to the table with answers before asking any questions. The others with no vested interest are simply exploring what’s there.


  3. Jay DiNitto says:

    Do you think it’s possible that when characters in the OT say or perform something, it might not actually be the person listed, but someone from their entourage? Probably not anyone, but some higher-up member of the household?


  4. Ed Hurst says:

    Yep. How often did God “say” something directly to anyone? We learn to recognize His voice, like sheep of His pasture, even when spoke by third parties. Yet in the ANE, such an arrangement was considered the same as if the principal had spoken in person.


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