Wednesday, 5 August 2009


We have explored in this chapter how national kinship is fictive - an artificial construction for political purposes. Kinship itself is more messy and has been a key topic within social anthropology throughout the 20th century. A key issue is to decide who is in our 'in' group and who is in the 'out' group. In some societies, anyone in the 'out' group is an enemy and can be killed, so this is a crucial concern throughout human evolution. Blood ties, (consanguinity) can be augmented by marriage ties (affinity) so kinship systems use intermarriage (exogamy, marriage out) as a means of widening kinship relations. Political marriages are examples of the same idea as ways of minimising conflict. Cousin marriage (endogamy, marriage 'in') consolidates the clan but narrows the kinship range. It is a feature in circumstances where there is lack of mobility to meet outsiders. There are advantages - the productiveness of daughters is retained, and their safety more easily assured. The main disadvantage is a higher risk of birth defects, so most groups ban sex between siblings or parents with their children through incest rules.

The current interest in research one's ancestors to build a family genealogy is mirrored in many societies, and is found in the Bible. We have the benefit of paper records, not usually the case in less technological communities. Word of mouth with families covers a few generations back, but is not totally reliable. In pre-bureaucratic and pre-literature communities, oral tradition is said to be more reliable than in the modern day, because there are presumed to be checks on accuracy between tradition-tellers. I do not find arguments convincing, since people in positions of power can change emphases and even invent propaganda deemed to be politically useful. True, when a story is well established and the audience know it in detail, divergence is difficult and corrected; but storytellers tend to be artists who give stories their own emphases and smart turn of phrase. We would need to find a pre-literature community whose oral tradition has been collected and studied to illuminate this point. Such a people are the San or Bushmen of the Kalahari about whom I will write later.

The new Israelites returning from exile had no continuity with the past or their new land. They arrived with no remembered history of place. The land had been given to them, although it was not an empty land, it could be gifted at the whim of a despot. Gift may be too strong a word, for their sending there may have been an exile rather than a return. The concepts of return and gift may be construction rather than reality, for some at least. Given the three or four generation time gap between exile and return, Palestine as a former home lay before living memory. All the "returners" had been born and bred in Babylon and had experienced nothing else. So, the circumstances in Palestine required the creation of an identity which the political and intellectual elite were determined to fill.

This is the context of our consideration of genealogies. They are socio-political documents which needed to be accepted even if inaccurate. They served a social purpose; the enhanced people's understanding of their status and identity. They needed to be believable, even if untrue or at least uncheckable.

The Genesis genealogy (I express this in the singular as overarching) traces Isralelite identity back to the first couple, and thence to God through the notion of God's image. There are key bifurcations - farmers versus pastoralists; Noah's family versus the rest; Shem favoured over Ham and Japheth; in turn, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob favoured as ancestors rather than the eponymous ancesters of neighbouring tribe. Real life is not so simple. Eponyms suggest that the genre is folktale and not history. Abraham, Isaac and Jacob are not eponyms so there may have been legends in which they featured.

Tuesday, 4 August 2009

Reflection. Genesis, Marriage and Family

The Bible has accumulated mystique as the sacred book of two world religions, so some find it sacriligious to subject it to the same critical scrutiny as any other historical source. As to the approach I take above, at a recent conference on the Bible and history, few if any of the 200 delegates would demur from the approach. When I edited Creating the Old Testament, 15 scholars joined me in scrutinizing evidence for the whole of the Old Testament, Christian, Jewish and humanists. We need to approach such important historical texts with the highest rigour and rationalism.

Genesis is essentially a fictitious genealogy, filled out with stories for public propaganda. The aim was a serious one - to blend the rough group of people who returned from Babylonian exile as a single people with common purpose, with a law code to create social order and religious piety. These people worshiped Yahweh, a traditional deity from pastoral or nomadic tribes in the Palestine and Syrian hill country. Some other divine names were used to explain this deity; others such as Baal were rejected as too close to the settled peoples whom they called Canaanites.

The returned exiles made a strong point against the practice of intermarriage, even requiring some people to divorce spouses who had not come from the in group (see Ezra and Nehemiah). Further info to come on intermarriage. This is the great organising message behind Genesis - a pure race, who marries in, not out. An unsullied blood line where girls marry the lads of their father's brother's family. This reflects the propaganda of the post-exilic period but has little to say about marriage in an earlier period. It has fed extraordinary loyalties and prejudices over history. Its sacredness, or perniciousness, is in the eye of the beholder.
We have explored in this chapter how national kinship is fictive - an artificial construction for political purposes. Kinship itself is more messy and has been a key topic within social anthropology throughout the 20th century. A key issue is to decide who is in our 'in' group and who is in the 'out' group. In some societies, anyone in the 'out' group is an enemy and can be killed, so this is a crucial concern throughout human evolution. Blood ties, (consanguinity) can be augmented by marriage ties (affinity) so kinship systems use intermarriage (exogamy, marriage out) as a means of widening kinship relations. Political marriages are examples of the same idea.
Next I will explore the law code that developed in the same period, the book of Deuteronomy, and especially what it says about marriage, the family, and kinship.

Monday, 3 August 2009

Adam and Eve

God begat Adam and Eve. The Genesis story is very clear. Adam is Hebrew for 'Man'. There are two accounts; in the first God created mankind male and female, and they were vegetarians. In the other, Eve was created from Adam's side and helped him to name things. Adam was therefore 'son of God', in 'the image of God' as a son is in the image of his father (Genesis 5). Adam and God were therefore kin. What this means is of course uncertain.

God created the world in 6 days, and rested on the 7th. So said Genesis 1 -2:4. The humans, created on day 6, were to subdue the world and rule over it. In Genesis 2-3, God created woman out of the side of man to give him companionship, to be a helper. The woman tempted him to eat the forbidden fruit and was tempted by the sepent. As a result, women will, it is asserted, cleave to her husband and give birth in pain. The marriage relationship which diminishes the woman is the result of the first sin. Equally we might say, the first sin was caused by Adam satisfying his stomach without due reflection. These chapters are an attempt to explain the tensions of marriage, the sexual attraction, the danger and pain of childbirth, and the power relationship of husband as master. This is the root of kinship. Legitimacy is created by marriage, preserving the family line which goes back to God himself.

Adam and Eve have wo sons, Cain and Abel, the first a farmer, the second a pastoralist. Cain killed Abel, the farmer killed the nomad. "Am I my brother's keeper?". This points to ancient hostility. The farmer carries on, marrying women 'out there', far away. Abel, the faithful and pious pastoralist, lies dead, his blood crying from the ground. Cain's family is not the chosen family. They are not kin. Intermarriage has taken away his inheritance rights. It implies of course that there were human women quite separate from this divinely created and
chosen family. He represented humanity other than the Hebrews.

The new chosen line was Seth. A generalogy is given, with some extraordinary ages and including Enoch who was taken to God without dying. "The Lord took him". This line brings up nearly to Noah, the ancestor at the time of flood.

One further incident begs our attention. The bene elim, the "sons of the gods" saw that the daughters of men were fair and took them to wife (Genesis 6-1-6). They gave birth to a race of heroes and giants. This was a prelude to the flood when God decided to clean out the sin of the world and to preserve only the family of Noah. Whatever the age of this detail, the legitimacy agenda mean that such ambigious individuals had to be eliminated. The chosen family were ordinary, human, and fallible. No heroes. No giants. This was the history of everyman, not an extraordinary group.


Under construction


Under construction

Isaac and Rebecca, Jacob and Esau.

Isaac is portrayed as the only son of Abraham, the claim of the older Ishmael being rejected. He is described as filial, even to the extent of helping in his own 'sacrifice', an act that would (in terms of the storyline) have wiped out the Israelite line before it began. This sacrifice is described as an instruction by God, then as a test, brought to an end by divine intervention replacing the boy with a ram. The post-exilic writer uses the story to build the character of Abraham as a chosen ancestor. Earlier stories show him meeting with angels, discussing Sodom's fate with God and making a covenant. Whether or not there were earlier sources, these passages have a key function in the narrative framework. For the post-exilic community, the Israelite remnant had survived not by accident but as part of a divine plan, in which punishment and testing were part and parcel.

The disapproval of intermarriage with Canaanites is explict in Genesis 24:3-4: Abraham sends a servant to "my country and my kindred" to find Isaac a wife. He is asked to swear an oath to bring her back, since Palestine had been gifted by God to Abraham and his descendants. The oath is intriguing: the servant has to place his hand 'under Abraham's thigh'. Rebecca comes from the family of Nahor, Abraham's 'brother' (v.15). We are introduced to Bethuel her father and Laban her brother. We also learn that Bethuel's mother was Milcah wife of Nahor. The servant prayed for guidance and a sign and when he met Rebecca the sign was granted. The story of the meeting and subsequent marriage are given in detail (Genesis 24), and contain details of Rebecca's family - Laban her brother, Bethuel her father, and Deborah her 'nurse'. Although two different sources have been suggested as combined in the story, this was an obsession within old source-historical studies and we treat the final text as a unity here. The narrative emphasises the authentic bloodline from Abraham to the neo-Israelite community in the writer's own day. 'Authentic' is understood to mean that God has approved, ordered and selected the Israelite people through a series of angelic visitations which represent conversations with God. These establish social, political and religious legitimacy for a community which needed to build roots quickly.

The marriage narrative emphasises close family marriage, that it is an arrangement between families, and was celebrated with a feast. Formal documents such as contracts are not mentioned - these are found for example at Nuzi much closer to the period being described and exiles would have been acquainted with legal documents in Babylonia. Marriage documents (the ketubah) came to be used later when more than family witnesses were required. Deuteronomy mentions a 'bill' of divorce, so this legal process was beginning in post-exilic Israel. Gifts were given to Rebecca, and others to her family. A feast was requested by her family, but the servant asked to leave immediately. When Rebecca arrived and saw Isaac, she veiled herself; then the marriage took place without formality.

Genesis 25 gives a further genealogy of Abraham's descendants, through another wife, Keturah. These depict other tribes in the middle East, such as Midian. The text affirms that Isaac was the chosen heir, and the others were given presents and sent out of Isaac's way 'eastwards'. This fictional Abrahamic family asserted kinship affiliation across the region, whilst affirming the priority of Isaac as heir and Israelite ancestor.

The birth of the twins Esau and Jacob is similar to the birth of Perez and Zerah to Tamar in Genesis 38, both with a 'red' theme, Esau being red and hairy, and Zerah having a red cord tied around his wrist. A prophecy said "Two nations in your womb, two peoples, going their own ways from birth. One shall be stronger than the other, the older shall be servant of the younger" (Genesis 25:23). The peoples were Israel through Jacob, and Edom through Esau. The Edomite genealogy is given in Genesis 36. The narrator is clearly Israelite, stressing the divine gift of the land (e.g. 26:1-5).

Sunday, 2 August 2009

Rachel, Leah and the sons of Jacob

The setting of these stories is prior to the 'exodus' from Egypt and is the device to place the Israelites in Egypt in the first place. A younger son, Joseph, is sold to be a slave in Egypt, but rises to political power (like in any good musical). His hostile brothers have to approach him in a famine to beg for food, not knowing who he is. They are punished but this is a device to bring Joseph's father Jacob to Egypt. Since Jacob was clearly not called Israel, God renames him Israel to provide appropriate legitimacy. 'Israel' as an entity does not refer to the Omride dynasty (8th century BCE?) in opposition to the kings of Judah in Jerusalem, but to all the tribes, listed as tribes in Genesis 49 - the situation after the Babylonian exile. Narrative cycles also read this greater Israel back into the reigns of David and Solomon, but with no historical or archaeological evidence to support this.

Jacob had two wives, Rachel and Leah, Rachel being the favorite but Leah producing most children. The sons they bore bear the names of the major tribes, on the assumption that these individuals were the ancesters of the tribes. This story binds them into a kinship network, to become allies rather than enemies. Only Joseph does not bear a tribal name - this goes to his sons Ephraim and Manasseh. Levi, through a tribe, hold no territory since they are itinerant priests.

Rachel and Leah illustrate polygynous families. There were jealousies, between their children if not between themselves. Joseph, son of Rachel, was perceived to be a favorite, wearing his coat of many colours. The marriage story has two interesting points. First, Rachel and Leah are first cousins to Jacob. Their father, Laban, was said to be the brother of Rebecca Jacob's mother. The marriage was arranged without consulting the girls. Secondly, Jacob asked to marry Rachel, worked for seven years to pay the bride price, but was given Leah instead, since she was older. After negotiation, he married Rachel shortly after. Marrying cousins is not uncommon, even today, as a means of keeping girls within the wider family so that by bearing children they build up their own family and not someone elses. Laban was Haran based, to the north, and not in Palestine. We don't know whether an old tradition lies behind this; but the arrangement serves to demonstrate that Jacob did not intermarry and so damage legitimacy. The tribes were kin to northerners, 'sojourners' (as said about Abraham) in a foreign place. Archaeology does not prove this, but it is true that pig bones are not found in the bronze age settlements in the north Galilee hills, whatever that may mean. Whether or not there was an older tradition, the legitimacy theme, Jacob being renamed as Israel, and the naming of the sons, are essential features of the post-exilic fiction. There may have been a real Jacob, Rachel and Leah in the second millenium (although I doubt it) - but that is all we can say since the detail is a story from around the fifth century BCE.
A note about Genesis 34, where the prince of Shechem rapes Dinah daughter of Jacob in the countryside and asks to marry her. The main condition of the marriage is that all Shechem's men are circumcised, so that a kinship is created. Shechem here represents the indigenous settled population. After the circumcision, when they were feverish, the Israelite troups massacred them. As Laban tricked Jacob, so the Israelites tricked Shechem. The story serves two purposes. On legitimacy, an indigenous intermarriage would have polluted the race. Intermarriage was disallowed after the exile to keep the nation pure. This story illustrates the danger and might have been written to support the policy. Second, Deuteronomy, the policy constitution of the return from exile, advocates the massacre or genocide of local people through holy war (chapter 20). This again could be a proof-text of that policy.
In Genesis 38, Tamar becomes a widow who should then be married to her dead husband's brother (levirate marriage). This retained her and her child-bearing potential within the family. In this story, Onan the husband's brother did not wish to produce heirs for his brother who would have precedence over his own sons. Tamar therefore through trickery dressed as a prostitute and slept with Judah her father-in-law. Now pregant, she could prove paternity. Her behaviour was deemed legitimate because it was not only her right but the family duty to arrange for her to become pregnant. Her child was legitimate, and her behaviour had protected the legitimate line. Deuteronomy has a detailed law (chapter 24) on levirite marriage; this story also becomes a proof-text.

Genesis stories.

In Creating the Old Testement: The Emergence of the Hebrew Bible (Bigger, 1989) I with colleagues explored the question, if the only secure fact is that someone wrote the Bible books, what does that tell us about the Bible's place in reconstructing history? Do we have to make a new set of assumptions? Should we consider characters such as Abraham, Moses, Joshua, David or Solomon fact or fiction? Conservative scholars over the ages have tried to assert the historicity of the historical framework, but this is not confirmed by archaeology. True, some archaeologists, and writers using archaeology have jumped to conclusions about site identifications and buildings, or to 'confirm' the Israelite conquest, but these views have not stood the test of time. Of course, any final writer of a biblical book may have used sources, but again old certainties about what these were, and their dates, have disappeared and new syntheses are being advanced. We can however make an overall generalisation which will help our search for clues - that the biblical books were finalised during a relatively short period of time between the 5th and 3rd centuries BCE, for reasons tied in with the politics of those years.

Genesis, the Hebrew narrative about human beginnings, introduces the Hebrew Bible (that Christians call the Old Testament). This is no accident. The book sets the social and family framework of the Hebrew world view. The exploits of the 'patriarchs' (or 'first fathers') and their families cannot be confirmed by any evidence at all, and cannot be assumed to represent history. We have to regard these stories as fiction unless we can demonstrate otherwise. As stories, they have a purpose: to inform readers (or listeners if the text is recited) of their cultural heritage, that is, their raisin d'etre as a people and the social expectations laid upon them. This includes an assertion as to the legitimacy of national descent and thereby the legitimacy of land claims. The stories move from the first couple, created by God, expanding a family tree through Noah, Abraham, his son Isaac and grandson Jacob, to the birth of the eponymous founders of the twelve tribes. Genesis is a genealogy, albeit expanded by stories. Rival family lines are described and dismissed: Ishmael, from whom Arabs claim descent; and Esau, from whom Edomites claimed descent (Genesis 36).

Why were stories produced and included, by whom? why? and when? The framework, the envelope that contains the stories, is from the final writer whose clear purpose was to proclaim legitimate ancestry. When was this an issue, and why? It is generally accepted by scholars today that this writer worked in the period after the Babylonian exile (which began in586 BCE) when under Persian rule the exiles were allowed home. This was a fresh start which required foundations to be rapidly built to unite the people. Religious unity was held to be a factor in social cohesion, so a fundamentalist line was taken, prohibiting intermarriage and syncretism (religious mixing). Laws were ascribed to Moses, and thence to God. Yahweh was the chosen name for God, and war was declared on other deities. History was also rewritten by the 'school' or group that also produced Deuteronomy.

In studying Genesis, therefore, we have a glimpse of how a new state wished to write its history. Their historical legitimacy was asserted through a system of twelve tribes, given fictive kinship relationships to Jacob, Isaac and Abraham. We hear more about the tribes in settlement texts which defined their tribal boundaries, much loved of modern mapmakers. Their complex settlement patterns and political organisation have been much studies, and we have to consider the jury as still out. Inappropriate assumptions about the historicity of the narratives have been part of the confusion. Today we cannot confirm that the Exodus and conquest of Palestine, actually happened as described. Rather, they seem to be later ideological reconstructions produced for political and theological purposes.

I next discuss the stories in Genesis about this tribal legitimacy, starting with the twelve sons of Jacob, bearing the names of the tribes of Israel. Then I will work backwards through the generations until we reach Adam and Eve.

Saturday, 1 August 2009

The Hebrew God

The early history of Hebrew/Israelite religion is uncertain. A people called 'Israelite' is named on the Egyptian Merniptah Stele in 1210 BCE, with no detail. Others names in this list are city states, so the Israelites would appear to be nomadic. The name is compounded with the divine name El. Other names for deity are used integrated with El, such as El Elyon (translated God Most High for convenience) and Shaddai (translated 'Almighty'). There is a plural form elim referring to some divine court or family, some of whom intermarried with human women (Genesis 6). Another plural elohim referred to household, perhaps ancestral gods or spirits. We see spirits of the dead being summoned, such as the prophet Samuel by soon to be king Saul. In incorporating these elohim into the divine concept, and then insisting on monotheism, we have this plural name preserved as though singular as God's name, although the plural lingers - "let us go down and confuse their language" God says at the tower (ziggurat) of Babel (Babylon) in Genesis 11. The divine name Yahweh was superimposed at some point (in the time of Moses says Exodus 6) in a myth of ethnic origins. The developing Hebrews/Israelites (these may not be synonyms) integrated El, Elyon, Shaddai and the elohim into the cult of Yahweh. Some also added the deities of neighbours, such as Baal and the goddesses Asherah and Astarte. Their myths are recounted in Ugaritic cuneiform texts. Later official policy was that these deities, called 'Canaanite', were the enemy, though if the prophets are to be believed, ordinary people took no notice.
The Old Testament book of Deuteronomy, and the history books influenced by this fundamentalist reviser, was written with this holy war agenda, which approved even of genocide (Deuteronomy 20). Elijah's fight against the prophets of Baal, and the story of the conquest of Palestine became founding myths. Although there may have been a small start made in the reforms of kings Hezekiah and Josiah, before the 6th century BCE exile to Babylon, it is widely accepted by Biblical scholars that the great impetus behind the present form of the writings are the period of return from exile, when a new settlement had to be made, with new pressures of intermarriage and assimilation. Yahweh's religion as we now know it is rooted in this period, although drawing some continuity from the prophetic movement of the 8th to 6th centuries BCE. Indeed the texts of Amos, Hosea, Micah, Isaiah and Jeremiah were finalised after the exile by the revisers who used them persuasively.

The name Yahweh should not be pronounced by Jews in case it is 'taken in vain' and the third commandment is broken. It is replaced with Adonai, 'Lord'. Hallelu-yah, 'praise Yahweh' should logically become Hallelu-Adonai. This 'ten commandment' list was created after the exile and was not early.

Missionaries to all continents, when translating the Bible to local languages, chose which local divine name to use for God, and which to exclude. In identifying these others with the devil (who they believed in) they actually enhanced the supposed power of these 'heathen' and 'evil' deities. The Biblical God also took on the local myths associated with the name for God chosen, leading to syncretism, or mixing of mythical ideas.
Today, we place ideas about God from many religions side by side trying not to confuse them. For me they have a metaphorical and symbolic function, seeking to express non-material aspirations, and are not to be taken literally.