Illustrations from Other Cultures
ALL THAT WE have presented so far is in one way or another related to family life, and was sparked by a consideration of Genesis 2:24, which lays down the general principle that if a man and his wife when they are first married do not have the means to establish a home of their own, the man should go to live with his wife’s family rather than the wife leaving home to live with his family. As a matter of convenience, we broke up our consideration of the rather wide ramifications of this injunction into sections. But, after due consideration, it did not seem the most suitable arrangement to explore the Bible itself under these particular headings in the same order, so we decided instead to follow on from Genesis 2:24 through the Old Testament, pointing out, where appropriate, how the story as it unfolds reflects many of these patterns of cultural behaviour. In doing so, it will be seen that these other cultures do indeed shed light upon many events in Scripture which to our western view seem otherwise improper, or at least somewhat irrational.
GENESIS 2:24: Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother and cleave unto his wife.
Since this passage was largely responsible for initiating the thread of the argument in the first part of this Paper, we merely refer the reader to Chapter 1 and Chapter 2, Section 2, without further comment here.
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GENESIS 4:1-2: And Adam knew his wife Eve; and she conceived, and bare Cain, and said, I have gotten a man from the Lord. And she again bare his brother Abel.
The Hebrew original is rather exceptional. Two boys are born who are generally assumed to have been twins, but the original text suggests rather that Abel was the true child resulting from Adam “knowing” Eve — as the text puts it — but that Cain was satanically originated and unnaturally given prior birth. Even in the natural order of things sons have been born some hours apart who are nevertheless not twins in the true sense. (62)
In Genesis 3:15 the promise is given to Eve that one who should be her seed would finally undo the works of Satan. In the circumstances, it was very natural for Eve to suppose that this Promised Seed would appear at once; and there is some evidence that she supposed this to have happened when her first child was born. This event is recorded in Genesis 4:1 and 2, and the Hebrew of the original is in some respects a little odd. Our text reads: “And Adam knew Eve his wife; and she conceived, and bare Cain, and said, I have gotten a man from the Lord. And she again bare his brother Abel.” In the original, Eve’s statement “I have gotten a man from the Lord,” may be translated in several different ways. She may have said, “I have gotten a man with the Lord,” i.e., with the help of the Lord perhaps. But she may also have said, “I have gotten a man, even the Lord.” In any case, the word “Lord” is “Jehovah” in the Hebrew, a circumstance to which we shall return in a moment. The phrase “And she again bare his brother Abel” is also a little strange. It could possibly be rendered, “And she bare also (at the same time) his brother Abel.” This would be a birth of twins. The only justification for this translation lies in the fact that the adverb “again” is a verb in the original which means essentially “to do at the same time,” or “to repeat.”
In the New Testament Cain is said to have been born of “that Wicked One” (1 John 3:12), a phrase which is exactly paralleled to that in Matthew 1:20 where Jesus is said to have been conceived of the Holy Spirit. The Greek ek (ek) is used in both cases, implying derivation in a special way, in the one case “out of” the Holy Spirit and in the other case “out of” the Evil One. Is it possible that Satan was also mistaken, believing that the first child that Eve bore would somehow or other be the Redeemer and that in some supernatural way he tried to see to it that an Antichrist appeared before Christ?
62. Toronto Globe, Aug. 5, 1949, reported such a case under the title, “Born 26 Hours Apart: But Two Sons, Not Twins.”
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If this admittedly speculative idea has any justification, then it seems not unlikely that with Cain exiled by God himself from the company of his fellows, Satan might soon tempt other men to claim themselves to be the Promised Seed. Although there are other interpretations of Genesis 4:26, it is not impossible that the statement that at this time “men began to call upon the name of the Lord” should more properly be rendered “men began to call themselves by the name Jehovah.” The Hebrew allows this, and it may be that notable individuals were tempted to make this claim for themselves openly for the first time.
In Exodus 6:2 and 3 there is a passage the meaning of which has always been a subject of debate. In this passage the Lord says to Moses, “I am the Lord: and I appeared unto Abraham, unto Isaac, and unto Jacob, by the name God Almighty, but by my name Jehovah was I not known to them.” It has always seemed strange that the Lord who was about to redeem Israel should say that He had not been known by name to the patriarchs, who met Him and talked with Him face to face. I should like to suggest this possibility. When Mary was told that she would bare a Son who was to be the Redeemer, she was also told what His name was to be, namely, Jehovah the Saviour, shortened into the form, Jesus. It seems to me not unlikely that God might have told Eve that when the Promised Seed came His name would be Jehovah. But — and this is the point of importance here — she was not told that Jehovah was God’s name. Accordingly, as the knowledge was passed from generation to generation, the tradition was well known that the name of the Promised Seed when He appeared would be Jehovah. But still no one knew that this was God’s name. As I see it, God was here saying to Moses, “You know as others have known that when the Redeemer comes his name will be Jehovah; but now I am revealing to you that I, God Almighty, am that Jehovah.” Or in very simple words, “I am that I am,” the second “I am” being a translation in a sense of the word “Jehovah.” Moses now knew that the Promised Seed was not a great mortal one but was to be God Himself. This fact was clearly understood by Isaiah (35:4).
There is a further observation that might be made regarding Cain, though I must confess that I am not certain that the text warrants what I am reading into it. Of the descendants of Cain, we are never told of their death. This might be simply the result of the fact that we are not given their age. But there were many subsequent historical figures in the Old Testament who were either enemies of the Lord’s children or, though actually Israelites, were without faith, yet these people have their deaths recorded, even though we are not told how old they were when they died.
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Some believe that Cain was supernaturally born of Eve through the agency of Satan who thereby hoped to present the Antichrist supposing that Abel was actually the Promised Seed. The Hebrew of Genesis 4:1-2 has always presented problems to the translator and it almost seems as though Adam knew his wife only once in spite of the birth of two children who are not presented to us in the usual terms reserved for the birth of twins. There is an ancient belief, and one still preserved by many primitive people, that when twins are born one of them is actually a child of the devil. Having no means of identifying which child is the evil one, such societies customarily insisted that all twins must be destroyed at birth.
Now, however fanciful such an idea may be, we are not altogether without some encouragement in holding it in the light of other passages of Scripture which bear upon the subject. If we attach any importance to ancient traditions, we may observe that the legendary giants of antiquity were believed to have had supernatural birth and to have enjoyed a kind of super-natural life. They lived and continued to grow in size as long as they lived, and because they lived for such lengths of time they became giants in size and vastly superior in knowledge. If these beings were descendants of one supernaturally born, they may have formed a race of giants and given rise to the tradition which seems to be reflected in Genesis 6:4. These men were not merely giants in size, they were men of renown. And certainly one gets this feeling of those who are listed as Cain’s descendants. While they did not die naturally, they were certainly capable of being slain, as Goliath was. And in Matthew 24:39 speaking of the Flood destroying the old world, we are told not that they died in the Flood but merely that they were “taken away.” The abhorrence of twins in some cases reflects a knowledge of details regarding the birth of Cain and Abel which has not been preserved for us in Genesis.
GENESIS 4:19, 22, 23: And Lamech took unto him two wives: the name of one was Adah, and the name of the other Zillah. . . And Zillah, she also bare Tubal-Cain, an instructor of every artificer in brass and iron. . . . And Lamech said unto his wives. . . Hear my voice . . . for I have slain a man to my wounding, and a young man to my hurt.
In Genesis 4:22 the son of Zillah is given as Tubal-Cain, and although the name does not appear in this form of antiquity, R. J. Forbes, one of the outstanding authorities on metallurgy in antiquity,
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points out that Cain means “smith.” And according to the same author, one of the tribes long associated in the ancient world with metalworking was the Tibareni, whom many scholars identify with Tubal, the l and r being interchangeable.
We may go one step further in this when we discover that the name of the individual who came to be constituted as the god of the Tiber (a clearly related word) was Vulcan. To my mind, there is not much doubt that Tubal-Cain is the earliest form of the name Vulcan, which in its later stages was merely shortened by the omission of the Tu-. In his commentary on Genesis, Marcus Dodds points out that everything is so faithfully perpetuated in the East that the blacksmith of the village of Gubbatea-ez-zetum referred to the iron “splinters” struck off while working at his forge as “tubal.”
Now the traditions regarding Vulcan are rather interesting. He is, of course, associated with fire and the working of metals, later appearing as the divine smith of the Roman tubilustrum. He is said to have been a cripple, having been thrown out of heaven by Jupiter as a punishment for having taken the part of his mother in a quarrel which had occurred between them.
In Genesis 4:23 there is the rather extraordinary story of how Lamech took vengeance on a young man for wounding him. Lamech’s son was Tubal Cain, perhaps none other than Vulcan, subsequently deified. In the brief account in Genesis, it is stated that Lamech had two wives, one of whom was named Zillah. Let us suppose, for a moment, that it was with Zillah that Lamech quarrelled and that Tubal-Cain, the son of Zillah, took his mother’s part and got into a fight with his father Lamech. Whatever happened to Lamech is not clear, although he appears to have been wounded, but Tubal-Cain himself was injured sufficiently to become thereafter a lame man. Moreover, it is customary in a society where polygamy is allowed, to name the child not after the father but after the mother, since this obviously assures better identification. In early cuneiform one of the curious words which has puzzled Sumerologists is “parzillu,” a word for “iron.” Now, surely, this word is none other than a masculinized form of two Semitic words, “Bar Zillah,” i.e., “Son of Zillah.” In the course of time because the ending -ah tended to be reserved for words of feminine gender, the word became “Parzillu,” or “Barzillu,” with a correct masculine termination.
Putting all these things together, one has a remarkable series of fragments of tradition in which there is a continuity of name-forms, all related in meaning or association and wrapped up in a trade of very ancient origin, attached to a deity who had the strange experience
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of being ejected from his home and rendered lame for taking his mother’s part and who thereafter lent his title, “Son of Zillah,” to the Sumerian people as their word for “iron.”
Such, then, is the light which this very early story in Genesis seems to shed upon much that is otherwise strange — and even absurd – -in ancient tradition. That there is a basis of fact throughout is clearly confirmed by the very continuity of the blacksmith’s art. Yet only in some form of Semitic language does one find any meaning to the venerable name, Tubal-Cain, or any light upon the origin of the hitherto mysterious word “Barzillu” or “Parzillu,” meaning “iron,” a word evidently bearing witness to the very early practice of naming children after their mother wherever polygyny was in effect.
GENESIS 9.20-25: And Noah . . . planted a vineyard: And he drank of the wine, and was drunken; and he was uncovered within his tent. And Ham, the father of Canaan, saw the nakedness of his father . . . And Noah awoke from his wine, and he knew what his younger son had done unto him. And he said, Cursed be Canaan. . . .
It has often been wondered why Canaan was cursed rather than Ham, who was the true offender against his father’s honour. It has been suggested that the curse originally was “cursed be Ham, the father of Canaan,” and there is apparently one ancient manuscript to support this view.
But I think perhaps there is a better explanation. As we have seen in Chapter 2, Section 16, it has in other cultures been customary to attach the credit or blame to the father (in some cases to the whole family) for some good or evil deed performed by a son. By a quite logical process of reasoning, if Noah had cursed Ham he would in point of fact have been discrediting himself, since he was Ham’s father. This was avoided by cursing Ham’s son and in this way discrediting Ham who was his father.
The principle is very interestingly illustrated in 1 Samuel 17:50-58. There, David has just performed a deed of great national importance by destroying Goliath. Now David himself was no stranger to Saul, for he had on many occasions played his harp to quiet the king’s distracted spirit. Yet here in verse 55 we find that when Saul saw David go forth against Goliath, even though he had actually offered David his armour, he said to Abner, the captain of his armies, “Abner, whose son is this youth?” And although Abner must certainly
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have known David by name, he replied, “As my soul liveth, O king, I cannot tell.”
This has always seemed a strange remark both for the king and for his commanding officer to have made. But I think the explanation lies in a proper understanding of the social significance of verse 58: “And Saul said unto him, Whose son art thou, young man? And David answered, I am the son of thy servant Jesse, the Bethlehemite.” This was apparently simply an occasion upon which, following a widespread social custom, Saul was planning to give credit where he saw credit was really due, namely, to the father. Because David was Jesse’s son, it was to Jesse that recognition must be given.
In the New Testament we find a further instance in a slightly different form. It is quite obvious that while a man can publicly seek to give credit to the father of a worthy son, it was less discreet for a woman to make reference to a father in complimentary terms for fear of being misunderstood. She therefore refers instead to the son’s mother who rightly shares in the worthiness of her children. This fact is reflected clearly in Luke 11:27, where we read of a woman who suddenly perceiving the true greatness of the Lord Jesus Christ, cried out in spontaneous admiration, “Blessed is the womb that bare Thee and the breasts which Thou hast sucked.”
GENESIS 11:25-31: And Nahor lived after he begat Terah an hundred and nineteen years, and begat sons and daughters. And Terah lived seventy years, and begat Abram, Nahor, and Haran . . . and Haran begat Lot. And Haran died before his father Terah in the land of his nativity, in Ur of the Chaldees. And Abram and Nahor took them wives: and the name of Abram’s wife was Sarai; and the name of Nahor’s wife, Milcah, the daughter of Haran, the father of Milcah, and the father of Iscah. . . And Terah took Abram his son, and Lot the son of Haran his son’s son, and Sarai his daughter in law, his son Abram’s wife; and they went forth with them from Ur of the Chaldees. . . .
GENESIS 12:1, 5, 9-13: Now the Lord had said unto Abram, Get thee out of thy country, and from thy kindred. . . . And Abram took Sarai his wife, and Lot his brother’s son . . . and they went forth to go into the land of Canaan . . . And Abram journeyed, going on still toward the south. And there was a famine in the land: and Abram went down into Egypt to sojourn there. . . And it came to pass, when he was come near to enter into Egypt, that he said unto Sarai his wife,
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Behold, now, I know that thou art a fair woman to look upon. Therefore it shall come to pass, when the Egyptians shall see thee, that they shall say, This is his wife: and they will kill me, but they will save thee alive. Say, I pray thee, thou art my sister. . . .
GENESIS 20:1-12: And Abraham journeyed from thence toward the south country, and dwelled between Kadesh and Shur, and sojourned in Gerar. And Abraham said of Sarah his wife, She is my sister: and Abimelech king of Gerar sent, and took Sarah. But God came to Abimelech in a dream by night and said to him, Behold, thou art but a dead man, for the woman thou hast taken; for she is a man’s wife. But Abimelech had not come near her: and he said, Lord, wilt thou slay also a righteous nation? Said he not unto me, She is my sister? and she, even she herself said, He is my brother: in the integrity of my heart and innocence of my hands have I done this. And God said unto him in a dream, Yea, I know that thou didst this in the integrity of thy heart; for I also withheld thee from sinning against me. . . . Now therefore restore the man his wife. . . . Then Abimelech called Abraham, and said unto him, What hast thou done unto us? . . . And Abraham said, Because I thought, Surely the fear of God is not in this place; and they will slay me for my wife’s sake. And yet indeed she is my sister; she is the daughter of my father, but not the daughter of my mother; and she became my wife.
The circumstances surrounding these events are wonderfully illuminated by many observations as set forth in the former part of this Paper. It is the cryptic statement of Abraham, “Indeed, she is my sister; she is the daughter of my father, but not the daughter of my mother,” which really receives the most light in this respect.
Genesis 11:25-27 can be set forth schematically as follows:
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Up to this point, the sons and daughters of Nahor who were Terah’s brothers and sisters are not named, but information given in the following verses provides very good grounds for believing that one of these was named Haran. We shall examine this shortly, but for clarity we now modify the above genealogy as follows:
It will be noted that Terah’s brother, Haran, had two daughters, Iscah and Milcah. The former of these, Iscah, was Sarah by another name. This identification is very widely agreed upon, was accepted in Jewish commentaries, and is assumed by Josephus in his Antiquities (Bk. 1, vi, 5).
It may appear to the reader that large liberties are being taken with the text, but this is not really the case. Like many others, the Jewish people commonly accepted the principle that if a man’s brother married a woman and subsequently died before the children married, he took his brother’s place and became in effect both her husband and the father of her children. This is the basis of the Pharisees’ hypothetical question in Luke 20:27-38. If therefore Terah’s brother Haran had died, the duty of becoming in effect the father of Iscah and Milcah would automatically devolve upon Terah. Terah’s “new” children would then become sisters to his own sons and when Abraham and Nahor subsequently married Iscah and Milcah, they would, socially, be marrying their own sisters. Genetically they were not, the two girls being cousins. However, they were a special kind of cousin, namely, “parallel cousins.” The term has been invented by anthropologists to signify the following relationship. My father’s brother’s children are parallel cousins. By contrast, my mother’s brother’s children are cross cousins. In a Semitic society the ideal wife for a man was one of his parallel cousins. Furthermore, where several sons existed and there were several female parallel cousins, it was assumed that the oldest son would marry the oldest girl and
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so on down the line. The expected wife for Abraham would therefore be his uncle Haran’s daughter of comparable age (See Chapter 2, Section 11).
Now this seems a little complex, but it is particularly striking in this instance because even today among many Arab tribes in all their love stories the man looks upon his paternal uncle’s daughter as his “princess.” This is the term by which he refers to her in his poetic moments. In Hebrew the word for prince is Sar, the feminine form of which is Sara, meaning “Princess.” The terminal possessive pronoun “my” is a long i so that Sara becomes Sarai meaning “my princess.” This is how Abraham referred to his beautiful wife. Her name was Iscah but he called her “My Princess” or Sarai.
Thus Terah’s brother Haran, who predeceased him, is identified in verse 29 as the father of Milcah and Iscah, whereas Terah’s son Haran, who also predeceased him, is referred to as the father of Lot (verse 31). Because his son Haran (no doubt named after his uncle) died prematurely, Lot became in a special sense the charge of Terah and subsequently of Abraham (See. Chapter 2, Section12). So when Terah’s brother died, Terah took his brother’s wife and became the father of his brother’s children. Because he was also the father of Abraham this allowed Abraham to say with perfect truth (though with ulterior motives) that Sarai, his princess, was indeed his sister, being the daughter of his own father, but not the daughter of his own mother.
There is, therefore, not the slightest element of invention here in so far as the record of Genesis goes. Genesis 11 gives us sufficient information, if carefully read, to see that there is nothing fanciful about the circumstance which so compounded Abraham’s relationship with his own wife.
Only one further observation seems appropriate here. And that is that every brother in a society of this nature is given a particular responsibility for the sister who is next to him in age. He bears a special protective relationship towards her and must approve her husband. He will, moreover, be called upon to chastise her children if necessary, while her husband will not be allowed to do so. It was thus important to curry the favour of any brother who was manifestly the protector of the sister whose hand might be sought in marriage, in which position Abraham must have appeared in the eyes of Pharaoh. This is why Abraham felt sure of his own safety, and indeed, of being favoured by Pharaoh or anyone else who might be in a position to desire Sarai (See. Chapter 2, Section 6).
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GENESIS 15.2-4: And Abram said, Lord God, what wilt Thou give me, seeing I go childless, and the steward of my house is this Eliezer of Damascus? And Abram said, Behold, to me thou has given no seed: and, lo, one born in my house is mine heir. And, behold, the word of the Lord came unto him saying, This shall not be thine heir; but he that shall come forth out of thine own loins shall be thine heir.
This appears to reflect a custom which, as we have seen, was evidently quite common, namely, the adoption of some member of the household who is nevertheless not a blood relative, who becomes the potential heir of the adoptive father. It would appear from the story, however, that the head of the house in this case at any rate made his adoptive son his heir so long as he had no sons of his own. It seems as though this could not but engender hard feelings if a son should be born unexpectedly. But perhaps if the adopted individual was quite aware of the tentative position he held as heir, his subsequent downgrading in this sense, might not be quite such a blow. On the basis of Genesis 24:2 it seems to me not unlikely that it was the same faithful member of his household who, as it says, was his eldest servant and ruled over all that he had, was sent on the delicate mission of finding a wife for the heir who displaced him. In which case, it is surely an evidence of the humility of his spirit and perhaps more understandable that the Lord was able to meet him so graciously while he was on his mission. At any rate, the adoption of a servant to become an heir of his master is a not uncommon custom among many cultures.
GENESIS 16:1-3; 21:2, 8-14: Now Sarai Abram’s wife bare him no children: and she had an handmaid, an Egyptian, whose name was Hagar. And Sarai said unto Abram, Behold now, the Lord hath restrained me from bearing: I pray thee go in unto my maid; it may be that I may obtain children by her. And Abram hearkened to the voice of Sarai. And Sarai Abram’s wife took Hagar her maid the Egyptian, after Abram had dwelt ten years in the land of Canaan, and gave her to her husband Abram to be his wife. . . .
For Sarah conceived, and bare Abraham a son in his old age. . . . And the child grew, and was weaned: and Abraham made a great feast the same day that Isaac was weaned. And Sarah saw the son of Hagar . . . mocking. Wherefore she said unto Abraham, Cast out this bond woman and her son; for the son of this bond woman shall not be heir with my son, even with Isaac. And the thing was very grievous in Abraham’s sight because of his son. And God said unto Abraham,
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Let it not be grievous in thy sight because of the lad. . . in all that Sarah hath said unto thee, hearken unto her voice; for in Isaac shall thy seed be called. . . . And Abraham rose up early in the morning, and took bread, and a bottle of water and gave it unto Hagar . . . and the child, and sent her away.
This is an illustration of the fact that the wife who fails to provide an heir to her husband is aware of having broken part of her marriage contract. Sarai had the alternatives of either finding a sister who could become Abram’s second wife, or providing him with some other woman entirely of her own choice. Abram was not permitted and probably did not seek to choose, a second wife for himself on the specific grounds of a broken contract, but he did accept Sarai’s choice. Hagar became his wife and in due course bore him a son, Ishmael. But thirteen years later, Sarah herself became pregnant and bore him a son, Isaac. During this interval Hagar seems to have caused considerable irritation to Sarah but not sufficient that she could demand of Abraham that he dismiss her from the household. When, however Sarah’s child was weaned, it appears that Ishmael was quite unwilling to accept gracefully the reduction of his status as the heir of Abraham and his behaviour became so unpleasant that Sarah demanded the expulsion of Hagar and her son from her household. According to law, a law which is reflected in the Code of Hammurabi, Abraham was called upon to take action on his wife’s behalf and he “cast out the bond woman and her son,” albeit with some reluctance (Genesis 21:14). In justice to Hagar, it does seem from Genesis 16:6-9 that Hagar was somewhat less to blame for the situation than her son Ishmael was. In Galatians 4:29 it is Ishmael who is accused.
In Genesis 30:1 and 5 it will be noted that the same custom is applied in the relations between Jacob and Rachel. She gives her maid Bilhah to Jacob who bears a son. Rachel said, “God hath . . . given a son” (verse 6). Clearly Rachel really did consider this was her child and the reality of her faith is borne out (verses. 7, 8) when she again gives her maid to Jacob and claims the second child as double vindication.
GENESIS 24:2ff. And Abraham said unto his eldest servant of his house . . . thou shalt go unto my country, and to my kindred, and take a wife unto my son Isaac . . . . And he arose, and went . . . unto the city of Nahor. . . . And [the servant] said, O Lord God of my
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master Abraham, I pray thee, send me good speed this day. . . . And it came to pass, before he had done speaking, that, behold Rebekah came out, who was born to Bethuel, son of Milcah, the wife of Nahor, Abraham’s brother. . . . And Rebekah had a brother and his name was Laban: and Laban ran out unto the man. And it came to pass, when he saw the earring and bracelets . . . said, Come in, thou blessed of the Lord. . . . Behold, Rebekah is before thee, take her and go, and let her be thy master’s son’s wife. . . .
Therefore, Isaac married his father’s brother’s daughter. It will be remembered once again that this is the marriage of parallel cousins, rather than cross cousins, which is somewhat rarer a practice. Nevertheless, such a marriage is quite acceptable, provided that the man is marrying his father’s brother’s daughter. It would not be at all acceptable for a man to marry his mother’s sister’s daughter. The difference in these two alternatives is that in the latter case there is a measure of incest involved because the bride has received her body (according to social belief at the time) from a woman who is too closely related by blood. On this crucial point, see Chapter 2, Section 10.
Now the circumstances surrounding the search which Abraham initiated for a wife for his son Isaac are particularly beautiful, and the literary form in which the story is cast in Scripture is surely the equal of any such love story in the English language. The old and faithful, though nameless, servant was sent by his master Abraham to find a wife for Isaac from the land from which he himself had come to this present place. So he set forth with camels and gifts and he came to the city of Nahor, that Nahor whose relationship to Abraham has already been established in Genesis 11. In due time, he comes to a well outside the city and there he decides to wait, asking the Lord that He will send out to him the maid of His choice and will reassure him by this sign, namely, that she would offer, not merely to him something to drink, but to draw water also for his camels.
It would be a pity to tell the story in any other words than those of the original but we may note that before the faithful old servant had finished praying (verse 51), a girl came to the well, very fair to look at, and her name was Rebekah, “born of Bethuel, son of Milcah, the wife of Nahor, Abraham’s brother.”
The genealogy which we have already repeated twice is now repeated a third time in order to bring out a striking fact about the relationship in time between Isaac and Rebekah. For the fact is that Isaac was born so late in the lifetime of Abraham and Sarah that
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he could not appropriately have found a wife in what would strictly have been his own generation, namely, the generation in which Bethuel was born. Had he married a sister, let us say, of Bethuel’s, he would have been marrying a woman perhaps twenty or twenty-five years older than himself.
Now the interesting thing about Bethuel is that although he was the father of the girl whose hand was sought in marriage, it is very evident from the record, as Blunt was perhaps the first to underscore, that he is virtually ignored in all the transactions which surrounded the betrothal of Rebekah. It is Rebekah’s mother and Rebekah’s brother, Laban, who are the chief actors in the story. When the servant first speaks with Rebekah, he asks her, “Whose daughter art thou? Tell me, I pray thee, is there room in thy father’s house to lodge in?” She answers that she is the daughter of Bethuel and that there is room. But when he thereupon declared who he was and whence he had come, we are told that “the damsel ran and told them of her mother’s house these things also.” This is not the normal thing for her to have done as is evident by Rachel’s behaviour when, later, Jacob introduced himself (Genesis 29:12) under somewhat similar circumstances.
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This might all be accidental except for the fact that we are then told that Rebekah had a brother whose name was Laban and that “Laban ran out unto the man and invited him in.”
This strange circumstance in which Laban acted as host rather than the father of the household has led some people to propose that perhaps Bethuel was dead. But this is clearly ruled out by the subsequent statement (Genesis 24:50) to the effect that Laban and Bethuel together answered the servant’s inquiries once he was in the house. So everything is agreed upon and Rebekah is to go with the servant who then makes the presentation of gifts. But these gifts are now presented not to the father but to the brother Laban and to her mother (Genesis 24:53). At the same time, it is suggested she should stay a few days before leaving; and once more the suggestion comes not from Bethuel but from her brother and her mother.
Some Encyclopedias, when dealing with Bethuel, propose that he may have been sickly or even imbecile, able to assent to what is proposed but not to make decisions nor to be a sensible recipient of valuable gifts. Personally, I think there is another possible reason for his taking such an insignificant part in all these proceedings which in no way casts doubt upon his character but results from the fact, already noted before, that in Oriental society, as among many native people today, there normally exists a special relationship between each brother in a family and the sister nearest him in age (See Chapter 2, Section 6).
We have already noted the widespread custom which required that the groom bring a substantial bride price when seeking a wife. We have also noted that the special brother is often largely dependent upon the gift brought to his sister to enable him, in turn, to fulfill the proprieties when he takes a wife. It is not at all surprising, therefore, that Laban, who seems to have been Rebekah’s “special brother,” should have been so interested in the gifts which were brought by the faithful old servant and at the same time should have played such a prominent part in the whole transaction.
But the genealogy as set forth above reveals another fact which might otherwise be missed. Isaac was born under circumstances which in effect made him one whole generation late, being the child of Abraham’s and Sarah’s old age. Had he been born routinely, Bethuel himself would have been “of his generation.” As things transpired, Bethuel’s children, not he himself, were of Isaac’s generation. In our modern terms, this is perhaps the first generation gap of which we have record. At any rate, it is quite certain that Bethuel himself could hardly have had a sister of appropriate age to be Isaac’s wife, for Isaac was young enough, due to circumstances, to be his son. He
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therefore did not receive the gifts. Because the two families were closely related, it is virtually certain that Bethuel would know very well that Isaac was a special child of his parent’s old age. Even if he didn’t know this already, the faithful old servant would certainly explain it all while he was in the house; and since he was not looking for one of Bethuel’s sisters and did not wish to cause embarrassment to them, he would almost certainly have avoided Bethuel’s household. Thus, the two people chiefly interested in the proposal which was being made would be Rebekah’s mother, who would be very anxious to see her daughter so well married, and Laban, who would be very happy to see the valuable gifts exchange hands.
GENESIS 28:1-2: And Isaac called Jacob, and blessed him, and charged him, and said unto him, Thou shalt not take a wife of the daughters of Canaan. Arise, go to Padan-Aram to the house of Bethuel thy mother’s father; and take thee a wife from thence of the daughters of Laban, thy mother’s brother.
GENESIS 29:1, 4-6, 9-28: Then Jacob went on his journey, and came into the land of the people of the east. . . . And Jacob said unto them, My brethren, whence be ye? And they said, Of Haran are we. And he said unto them, Know ye Laban the son of Nahor? And they said, We know him. And he said unto them, Is he well? And they said, He is well: and, behold, Rachel his daughter cometh with the sheep. And while he yet spake with them, Rachel came with her father’s sheep: for she kept them. And it came to pass, when Jacob saw Rachel the daughter of Laban his mother’s brother, and the sheep of Laban his mother’s brother, that Jacob went near, and rolled the stone from the well’s mouth, and watered the flock of Laban his mother’s brother. And Jacob kissed Rachel, and lifted up his voice and wept. And Jacob told Rachel that he was her father’s brother, and that he was Rebekah’s son: and she ran and told her father.
And it came to pass, when Laban heard the tidings of Jacob his sister’s son, that he ran to meet him and embraced him, and kissed him, and brought him to his house. And he told Laban all these things. And Laban said to him, Surely thou art my bone and my flesh. And he abode with him the space of a month.
And Laban said unto Jacob, Because thou art my brother, shouldest thou therefore serve me for nought? tell me, what shall thy wages be? And Laban had two daughters: the name of the elder was Leah, and the name of the younger was Rachel. Leah was tender eyed; but Rachel was
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beautiful and well favoured. And Jacob loved Rachel; and said, I will serve thee seven years for Rachel thy younger daughter. And Laban said, It is better that I give her to thee, than that I should give her to another man: abide with me. And Jacob served seven years for Rachel; and they seemed unto him but a few days, for the love he had for her.
And Jacob said unto Laban, Give me my wife, for my days are fulfilled, that I may go in unto her. And Laban gathered together all the men of the place, and made a feast. And it came to pass in the evening that he took Leah, his daughter, and brought her to him; and he went in unto her. And Laban gave unto his daughter Leah Zilpah his maid for an handmaid. And it came to pass, that in the morning, behold, it was Leah: and he said to Laban, What is this thou hast done unto me? did not I serve thee for Rachel? wherefore then hast thou beguiled me? And Laban said, It must not be so done in our country, to give the younger before the firstborn. Fulfil her week, and we will give thee also this for the service which thou shalt serve with me yet seven other years. And Jacob did so, and fulfilled her week: and he gave him Rachel his daughter to wife also.
In Genesis 28 above we have a beautiful illustration of a potential cross-cousin marriage. The Hebrew people accepted either a parallel or cross-cousin marriage, in the latter instance the man being permitted to marry either his father’s sister’s daughter or his mother’s brother’s daughter. In neither case is there taint of physical incest. As we have already noted, Laban was evidently Jacob’s mother’s “special brother.” So Jacob went to find Laban.
Evidently Rachel was a remarkably beautiful girl. In verse 17 the Authorized Version tells us that “Leah was tender-eyed; but Rachel was beautiful and well favoured.” The Hebrew in this passage is interesting, for there is a suggestion that in fact Leah was “weepy-eyed,” more literally, “watery-eyed.” For Rachel the original implies not only beauty but a certain fire. Rachel sparkled! Perhaps it is no wonder that Jacob loved her at first sight.
We have noted that whenever a suitor sought the hand of a man’s daughter but came without the requisite bride price to demonstrate the seriousness of intent, or wherever there was little portable wealth in terms of jewelry and precious metals (such as had been given to Laban), which would have enabled the bride to depart immediately with her new husband, the husband-to-be could agree to work for a certain length of time to compensate the father-in-law for losing a pair of working hands (See Chapter 2, Section 6).
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Evidently Jacob did not inquire carefully enough as to the rules of the society. Had he been a student of social anthropology he might have realized that marrying a younger daughter before an older one could create real problems. Perhaps if Laban, in his turn, had been completely honest with Jacob, he might have told him to begin with: but then he ran the risk of not having an extra pair of hands for 14 years. It always strikes me as being a particularly beautiful touch that the writer tells us how the time flew for Jacob on account of “the love he had for Rachel,” though it must be noted (in verse 20) that it was the first seven years which thus passed so quickly. One wonders about the second period of servitude.
GENESIS 38:2-30: Judah saw there a daughter of a certain Canaanite, whose name was Shuah; and he took her, and went in unto her. And she conceived, and bare a son; and he called his name Er. And she conceived again, and bare a son; and she called his name Onan. And she yet again conceived, and bare a son; and called his name Shelah. . . .
And Judah took a wife for Er his firstborn, whose name was Tamar. And Er, Judah’s firstborn, was wicked in the sight of the LORD; and the LORD slew him.
And Judah said unto Onan, Go in unto thy brother’s wife, and marry her, and raise up seed to thy brother. and Onan knew that the seed should not be his; and it came to pass when he went in unto his brother’s wife, that he spilled it on the ground, lest that he should give seed to his brother. And the thing which he did displeased the LORD: wherefore He slew him also.
Then said Judah to Tamar his daughter in law, Remain a widow at thy father’s house, till Shelah my son be grown: for he said, Lest peradventure he die also, as his brethren did. And Tamar went and dwelt in her father’s house.
And in process of time the daughter of Shuah, Judah’s wife died; and Judah was comforted, and went up . . . to Timnah . . . . And it was told Tamar, saying, Behold, thy father-in-law goeth up to Timnah to shear his sheep. And she put her widow’s garments off from her, and covered her with a veil, and wrapped herself, and sat in an open place, which is by the way to Timnath; for she saw that Shelah was grown, and she was not given unto him to wife.
And when Judah saw her, he thought her to be an harlot. . . . And he turned unto her by the way, and said, Go to, I pray thee, let me come in unto thee; (for he knew not that she was his daughter-in-law). And she said, What will thou give me, that
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thou mayest come in unto me? And he said, I will send thee a kid from the flock. And she said, Wilt thou give me a pledge, till thou send it? And he said, What pledge shall I give thee? And she said, Thy signet, and thy bracelets, and thy staff which is in thine hand. And he gave it her, and came in unto her, and she conceived by him. And she arose, and went away, and laid her veil from her, and put on the garments of her widowhood.
And Judah sent the kid by the hand of his friend the Adullamite, to receive his pledge from the woman’s hand: but he found her not. Then he asked the men of that place, saying, Where is the harlot, that was openly by the way side? And they said, There was no harlot in this place. And he returned to Judah, and said, I cannot find her; and also the men of the place said, that there was no harlot in this place. And Judah said, Let her take it to her, lest we be shamed: behold I sent this kid, and thou hast not found her.
And it came to pass about three months after, that it was told Judah, saying, Tamar thy daughter-in-law hath played the harlot; and also, behold, she is with child by whoredom. And Judah said, Bring her forth, and let her be burnt. When she was brought forth, she sent to her father-in-law, saying, By the man whose these are, am I with child: and she said, Discern, I pray thee, whose are these, the signet, and bracelets, and staff. And Judah acknowledged them, and said, She hath been more righteous than I; because that I gave her not to Shelah my son. And he knew her again no more.
And it came to pass in the time of her travail, that, behold, twins were in her womb . . . therefore his name was called Pharez. And afterward came out his brother . . . and his name was called Zerah.
This story provides a beautiful illustration of how the Levirate practice was applied and how God judged a man for being indifferent to it when it suited his purposes. The text supplies us with the following genealogical data:
Er married a girl named Tamar but the Lord destroyed him for his wickedness, and Tamar was left a widow. According to custom she was then given to Onan, Er’s next oldest brother, but Onan refused
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to play his part (verse 9) and his life was also taken by the Lord. Judah then promised that the next son, Shelah, who was yet a child, should be given to her as a husband when he grew up. But then Judah betrayed his promise, for when Shelah was grown he was given another wife instead of Tamar who in the meantime continued to live with her father (verse 11). Tamar then took things into her own hands when she found that her father-in-law had denied her a lawful husband, and by pretending to be a harlot she compromised him. When Judah discovered what he had done (verse 26), he immediately admitted his guilt but in the meantime twins were born to Tamar, namely, Pharez and Zerah. In due course the great grandson of Zerah was he who greatly troubled Israel and caused many to lose their lives (Joshua 7:1).
According to Numbers 26:20 Judah’s younger son, Shelah, did marry but not Tamar, and he and his children were therefore disqualified from the royal line. Tamar, on the other hand, was strictly the wife of Er, the firstborn, and on this account her children were considered strictly as children of Er, the son of Judah. The circumstance illustrates the fact that the mother, whose identity is always known for certain, is more important than the actual father, in terms of the children born. According to law, the question is, Who is the legal husband? — not, Who is the actual father? This matter is of prime importance in the case of Joseph, who was the husband of Mary and therefore the legal father of Jesus. Meanwhile, the royal line is traced through Pharez, the son of Tamar, and therefore by law the son of Er, the son of Judah.
In the beautiful story of Ruth and Naomi, there is an illustration of this custom. Ruth insists on staying with Naomi, who tries to discourage her on the grounds that “if I should have a husband this very night and should bear a son,” (Ruth 1:12), it would still be a long time before one was old enough to be given to Ruth as a husband to compensate her for her loss. Hence Naomi asks her, “Would ye tarry for them till they were grown?” (Ruth 1:13).
LEVITICUS 18:17: Thou shalt not uncover the nakedness of a woman
The terminology used here has seemed to many commentators rather odd. The injunction itself is clear enough, the object being to state clearly those relationships in which marriage is not permissible. But I think the use of the phrase “uncover the nakedness of. . .” may be a reflection of the implications involved in the “joking relationship” to which reference is made in Chapter 2, Section 12.
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2 SAMUEL 13:1: And it came to pass after this, that Absalom the son of David had a fair sister whose name was Tamar; and Amnon the son of David loved her. . . .
When this verse is analyzed, it is obvious that Absalom and Amnon were brothers, both being sons of David and that Tamar was a sister to both of them. But what we know now from the cultural habits of other people indicates that the situation was not quite so simple. David had more than one wife, and Tamar was the daughter of one of these wives, whereas Amnon was the son of another of these wives. Absalom was evidently a true brother to Tamar and bore that special relationship in which we have noted that one particular brother will bear to a particular sister. Tamar was Absalom’s special sister (See Chapter 2, Section 6).
According to the views of many cultures with respect to the definition of incest, Tamar was not related to Amnon in any incestuous way, for, although David was the father of both, they did not share the same mother and their bodies were not therefore derived from the same source (See Chapter 2, Section 10).
According to verse 2, what really vexed Amnon in his relationship with Tamar was that for some reason he could not conveniently have his will with her. It was then that a certain “friend” of his offered to arrange things for him. In verse 4, Amnon told his friend that he loved Tamar, “my brother Absalom’s sister.” I think this is clear recognition on the part of Amnon that Tamar was not his own sister. And it is a little difficult to understand, therefore, why he did not go to David and ask him frankly for Tamar’s hand in marriage. It may be that he did not want to marry Tamar, that his intentions were not honourable. Tamar herself pointed out to Amnon that he was wronging her unnecessarily for she said (verse 13): “Now, therefore, I pray thee, speak unto the king; for he will not withhold me from thee.”
One can only assume, therefore, that Amnon’s heart was evil and that he had no good intentions towards Tamar except to satisfy his own lust. The story in its sorry detail is not so much a record of the evil effects of incest, for such a marriage would not have been counted incestuous. But it is a record rather of the ultimate evil of lack of self-control in human behaviour.
Absalom’s vengeance undoubtedly stemmed from his genuine feelings towards Tamar, but it may have been reinforced in his own mind
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by the realization that Tamar could no longer supply him with the help he might have expected from her dowry towards the obtaining of his own wife (See Chapter 2, Section 6).
It is important to realize that God in His graciousness meets the needs of people within the framework of their own culture. In the present instance the Word of God sets forth Tamar’s words to the effect that her father, David, would not deny her as a wife to Amnon in such a way that Tamar is not judged for making this observation — though to us it would seem quite an improper proposal . . . an important point which missionaries have to face up to.
MATTHEW 1:25: And [Joseph] knew her [Mary] not till she had brought forth her firstborn son: and he called his name JESUS.
Joseph fulfilled the conditions which were required by law to constitute him as the father of Jesus and therefore, to make Jesus officially his heir, not only by giving him his name but by teaching him the trade of carpentry (See also Chap. 2, Section 3).
LUKE 15:11,12, 31: And he [Jesus] said, A certain man had two sons. And the younger of them said to his father, Father, give me the portion of goods that falleth to me. And he divided unto them his living. . . . And he said unto him [his elder son], Son, thou art ever with me and all that I have is thine.
Once again, little comment is necessary in view of what has already been said in Chapter 2, Section 18. But it is worth noting a significant departure from the expected wording of the father’s response. We are told that “he divided to both his living.” In other words, having only two sons and having already been requested to give the younger son his inheritance, the older son at the same time received his, since now it was a foregone conclusion. As was customary, the elder son did not wait until his father died to come into possession of his due inheritance. Since there were only these two boys, the elder son naturally received and at once possessed “all that his father had” exactly as it is stated in verse 31.
I suppose part of the elder brother’s concern was that his younger brother would now be in a position to rob him of some of his possessions after having squandered his own. After all, the fatted calf which was slaughtered potentially belonged not to the father but to the elder
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son, “all that I have is thine.” Yet apparently he had not been asked if he would surrender this choice animal. There is a sense in which he had a legitimate grievance, and yet the father was right. The conflict of interests, the conflict between what is “good” and what is “right,” is common.
A final comment is perhaps in order. According to Old Testament injunctions, the oldest member of the family, i.e., the firstborn, was always given a double portion of the inheritance in order that he might have sufficient wealth to redeem a brother who got hopelessly into debt. In this instance, therefore, the inheritance had not been divided in a 1-to-1 ratio but in a 2-to-1 ratio, so that the older brother would actually have been provided with the requisite means to redeem the prodigal in any case. In this sense the old father was justified in using his son’s property. . . . But perhaps he should have advised him or asked his permission before doing so. Evidently he had not done this (verses 25-28).
LUKE 15:20: And he arose, and came to his father. But when he was yet a great way off, his father saw him, and had compassion, and ran, and fell on his neck, and kissed him.
Very little comment is necessary here in view of what has already been said in Chapter 2, Section 17. Although the young man’s diet had probably been changed sufficiently that his body odour was no longer familiar, the old man fell easily and at once into the old way of showing his affection by burying his face where body odour had once been sensed as a proof of belonging.
The custom is reflected in the behaviour of Jacob when he met his defrauded brother Esau after a separation of many years (Genesis 33:4); as also when Joseph was united with his brethren (Genesis 45:14). It might appear that when Isaac blessed Jacob, he too was being guided by body odour (Genesis 27:21f.), but I rather think here that it must have been the clothing itself which provided the identifying odour for presumably Jacob and Esau shared the same table.
GALATIANS 4:1, 4, 5: Now I say, That the heir, as long as he is a child, differeth nothing from a servant, though he be lord of all. . . But when the fulness of time was come, God sent forth His son . . . to redeem them . . . that we might receive the adoption of sons.
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It seems strange to us that a man, though he is born in the family, should not automatically be recognized as the heir. But as we have seen (in Chapter 2, Section 3), even true sons have to be officially adopted by the father in many societies in which the father is likely to be away from home for long periods of time. Moreover, where there are no children, servants or even captives may be adopted as legal heirs with the full rights of true sonship. In writing to the Galatians, Paul probably had in mind the need to emphasize to the Jewish people that they were not children of God automatically, merely because their father Abraham was God’s special child; nor are the children of Christian parents automatically children of God. There must be a clearly defined process of adoption in which the relationship of true sonship is established by an act of the Father.
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Copyright © 1988 Evelyn White. All rights reserved
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