Monday, July 28, 2008

Genesis and Israel's Land Claim

David Noel Freedman died on April 26, 2008. His breadth of knowledge of both the Hebrew Scriptures and the Greek New Testament is astonishing. He dedicated his adult life to rigorous study of the Bible, and edited all 55 volumes of the Anchor Bible Series.

Dr. Freedman saw Genesis as a critical part of the Jewish claim to Palestine. In an interview with Biblical Archaeology Review, he said, "This is really a quasi-legal brief on behalf of Israel and its claim to the land. The contention is that even though the original grant of land to them was conditional—provisional—and they failed to maintain the conditions—they didn’t fulfill the requirements of the covenant and they lost the land—nevertheless, over-riding this historical truth is the original commitment made by God to Abraham in Genesis 15 (and repeated elsewhere to Abraham and his descendants). There it’s spelled out. God committed himself by oath to give the land to Abraham and his descendants. According to their understanding, even if they deserved to lose it and lost it, they still have this claim because the original commitment was unconditional, irrevocable—'To your offspring, I give this land' [Genesis 15:18]—and there’s no way it can be reversed."

So does Genesis establish a legal basis for Jews to claim exclusive right to the west bank of the Jordan? Only if we interpret "descendents" to mean only Isaac's offspring by Rebecca. But what if Isaac already had a half-sister wife dwelling in Beersheba, as the text hints by having Abraham's servant bring Rebecca to Beersheba instead of to Hebron?

And what about Abraham's other sons and daughters?

The promise of the land is to Abraham's descendents and Genesis counts Abraham's descendents through 8 sons: Ishmael (by Hagar), Isaac (by Sarah) and Joktan, Midian, Zimram, Medan, Ishbak and Shuah (by Keturah). The Joktanite tribes today dwell in southern Arabia and their habitation of this region has been largely uninterrupted throughout the centurires.

Genesis 10: 26 tells us that Joktan had 13 sons. If Joktan followed the pattern of his fathers, his 2 wives would have maintained separate households on a north-south axis (just as Abraham maintained Sarah in Hebron and Keturah in Beersheba). We have every reason to believe that the Joktanites followed the kinship pattern of Abraham and his ancestors because Joktan's bride, a daughter of Sheba, named their first-born son "Sheba" after her father. This is the pattern already in evidence in Genesis 4 where we read that Lamech had a daughter named Namaah. Then in Genesis 5 we discover that Namaah married her patrilineal parallel cousin, Methuselah, and named their first-born son "Lamech" after her father.

The fact that the descendents of Ishmael, Isaac and Joktan intermarried makes it impossible to apply the term "descendents" to the Jews alone. Genesis doesn't support this claim. Instead it speaks of strife between brothers who God would have live together in peace.

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