Official Blog of the Bishop of Durham

Abraham’s Family – Historical Non-Israel

Posted by NT Wrong on October 28, 2008

In The Origins of Biblical Israel, Philip Davies makes the point that Genesis never restricts God’s land promise to Abraham’s immediate family. To the contrary, the Promised Land in Gen 15.18-20 (“from the river of Egypt to the great river”) extends beyond the borders of Israel and Judah, and includes all the territory occupied by all of Abraham’s kin:

    • Ammon and Moab
    • Edom
    • Ishmael
    • Perhaps even Abraham’s relatives in Paddan-Aram

“the full significance of this has escaped a surprisingly large number of commentators. Even if the later removal of some “Canaanite” or “Amorite” nations who are not of Abraham’s family is already predicted, peaceful co-existence for the time being is implied in the blessing of Melchizedek the king of Salem (ch. 14), the purchase of the cave near Hebron from Ephron the Hittite (ch. 23) and the intermarriage (ch. 34). Even the story of Abraham’s visit to Egypt in ch. 12 hardly suggests the distaste that Egypt evokes later in the First History; this Pharaoh is no villain (nor is the Pharaoh of the Joseph story). The same is true of Abimelech of Gerar in chs. 20 and 26. Israel is therefore not (or will not be) an isolated nation quite distinct from all other nations, but part of a larger family with which it shares land promised to the ancestor; and the ancestors behaviour displays no xenophobic traits.”
– Philip R. Davies, The Origins of Biblical Israel (Library of Hebrew Bible / Old Testament Studies, 485; New York and London: T & T Clark, 2007): 46.

Now, his observations here concern the book of Genesis, not later Hexateuchal passages, where these same boundaries are redefined as belonging exclusively to ‘Israel’ (e.g. Exod 23.31; Deut 1.7; Josh 1.4).

It’s a good observation. I wonder, just to take it in a slightly different direction from Davies, whether it reflects the historical situation of earlier centuries (earlier than the eighth century, say) in which this Levantine area was under the control of disparate tribes, controlling little more than cities — ‘Abraham’ (naming some typical ruler) controlling his little group with his own little army, and others controlling theirs. In such a scenario there would be no nationalistic religion, because there was nothing like a ‘nation’ (which is not just a modern system). Genesis would thereby provide some historical recollection of small, largely independent tribes, with some shared identity being reflected in the genealogical stories.

Mere speculation? How better then to explain the blessing of (at the later times of writing) Judah’s enemies and the divine guarantee of their rights to the land?

(The present-day political consequences are another interesting implication that Philip Davies appeared ‘to have in mind’, if I’m allowed to say such a thing about an author these days.)

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