Sunday, June 21, 2009

Who was Eliezer of Damascus?

William Dyce's oil painting of Eliezer (1860) is on permanent exhibit at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts.

"O Lord God, what can You give me seeing that I shall die accursed, and the steward of my household is Dam-Mesek Eliezer?" Genesis 15:2

Alice C. Linsley

I received this e-mail message from a former student. It is such a good question that I’m posting it for readers of Just Genesis.

I have two questions. Who was Eliezer of Damascus? If Abraham already had sons – Ishmael (by Hagar) and Joktan (by Keturah) - why was he so concerned in Genesis 15 about having another son to be his heir?

Eliezer was a prominent servant in Abraham’s house. His name means God is of help. Some commentators believe that he is the servant that Abraham sent to Paddan-aram to procure a cousin (or niece) wife for Isaac. Isaac already would have had a half-sister wife in Beersheba. The second wife would be necessary for Isaac to assume rule of his father's territory before Abraham died.

Eliezer, Abraham’s helper in selecting the proper wife for Isaac, finds Rebekah at a well (shrine), just as Abraham found Keturah at the well of Sheba, just as Moses found Zipporah at a well sacred to Abraham’s descendents, the Midianites. Interestingly, Eliezer is also the name of Moses' second son by Zipporah (Ex 18:4; 1 Ch 23:15 ff ).

Some versions of the Bible do not specifically mention Eliezer. The New Jerusalem Bible (following the Vulgate) has only these words: "Since you have given me no offspring... a member of my household will be my heir."

Versions that follow the Septuagint offer this: "What will you give me, seeing I go childless and the heir of my house is Dam-Mesek Eliezer, the son of my domestic maidservant."

The text poses challenges. The word that is translated "childless" is ariri in Hebrew, which means accursed. Why would Abraham regard himself as accursed?  Sarah's infertility meant that Abraham would not have a firstborn son by his half-sister (Gen. 20:12) and according to the Horite marriage and ascendancy structure, this was the rightful heir to Abraham's throne. From the context we gather that Sarah's infertility was viewed as a curse (cf. Gen. 20:17,18).

Some scholars believe that “Damascus” is a gloss on the text. If so, it is an interesting gloss because it points us back to Sarah’s Syrian roots and therefore points to Sarah as the one from whom the son of promise would be born. Isaac inherited the patrimony of Abraham, but as the lines descending from Shem and Ham continued to intermarry, the Son of Promise, Jesus Christ, would come from Abraham by both his wives. This gives us insight into God’s promise that Abraham’s descendants would become as numerous as the stars (Gen. 15:5).

Personally, I don't believe the Hebrew Dammesek is a gloss. It refers to the son or blood (dam) of Mesek. This portrays a picture of Eliezar as Abraham's son by a maidservant, paralleling the story of Hagar. If we are to accept this interpretation, Abraham had 9 sons: Ishmael, Eliezer, Isaac, Joktan, Zimram, Medan, Midian, Ishbak and Shuah.

If Abraham wished to honor the custom of his forefathers, we can understand his distress about not having a son by Sarah. We also must recognize his faith, for he accepted God’s word in the matter as final. He chased away his doubts as he chased away the birds of prey that descended upon the animal carcasses (Gen. 15:11). No wonder Abraham is called the "father of all who believe" in the Son of God (Rom. 4:16). St. Paul tells us, "Abraham is our father in the eyes of God, in whom he put his faith, and who brings the dead to life and calls into existence what does not yet exist" (Rom. 4:17). Abraham trusted God and God made him into a great multitude of peoples, including the Arab descendants of Masek and the Egyptian descendants of Hagar.

Hagar and Masek are to Abraham's household what the concubines Zilpah and Bilhah are to Jacob's household. They built up the ruling houses of these patriarchs by producing many offspring. If the biblical pattern is to be trusted, we may reasonably suspect that Hagar and Masek were the servants of Sarah and Keturah, just as Zilpah was the servant of Leah and Bilhah the servant of Rachel (Gen. 30). That Masek was Keturah's servant is supported by the fact that the name Masek is still found among the south Arabian Mahra. They dwell in Yemen, Oman and southern Saudi Arabia (see map below). This is where we would expect to find the descendants of Abraham by Keturah's servant Masek. This indicates that Eliezar was likely not of Damascus and supports the view that he was a son and he too was an Arab.


Jonathan said...

Alice, You have probably come across Joseph and His Brothers, by Thomas Mann (written from 1926-1943). I hesitate to come right out and recommend it: given its gargantuan length, it could immobilize you for a year or more if you decide to take it up. But one thing that stays with me from my attempts at this novel, is how wonderfully the depiction of the character of Eliezer provides a springboard for one of Mann's most intriguing themes, having to do with the way that cycles of repetitiveness in human history can make distortions of the real span of time, so that events that happened once-upon-a-time in a collective memory of a people tend to get foreshortened in the retelling, and the whole panorama in which the events must have actually occurred is probably abbreviated: The novel tells of how a young Joseph would have carried around a repository of stories that were told to him by a family servant by the name of "Eliezer," but as time goes on, how easy it is for one Eliezer to take the place of another in a succession of family stories, until it becomes unclear who was the original Eliezer-- Jacob's servant, or Abraham's, or servant to some ancestor of Abraham's.

Alice C. Linsley said...

Interesting, Jonathan. It is how some people explain the couplets in Genesis. Scratches at the layer of oral tradition.

yemitom said...

From another website and about the Egba people:

Consider the phrase "Egba omo Lishabi" . This is actually Egba omo ti Lisha bi - Egba a child born of Lisha. In the Bible there were a couple of people named Eber and this is in reference to one of them,. . . . but which one? It qualifies itself - the one born of Lisha! So this particular Eber must have had a parent named Lisa, Eliza or Eleazer. To add credit to this qualification, in Abeokuta "Lisa" is a high ranking chief.


Anonymous said...

Granted that biblical events are not always listed in strict chronological order, but one aspect of the original question you
refer to does not seem to be addressed at all. The writer stated that Ishmael had already been born. But this concern Abraham expressed about a possible future heir occurs before the birth of Ishmael, who does not come on the scene until later in the narrative.

Alice C. Linsley said...

What an excellent question you've raised!

Remember that Abraham had two wives, as was the pattern for all Horite rulers. His father Terah had two wives. Sarah was Terah's daughter by one wife and Abraham was Terah's son by the other wife. This pattern meant that there were always two firstborn sons; one by the half-sister wife and the other by the cousin/niece wife. The firstborn son of the cousin/niece wife ascended to the throne of his maternal grandfather, after whom he was titled/named. So Enoch the Younger ascended to the throne of Esau the Elder (Gen. 36). The firstborn of the half-sister wife ascended to the throne of his biological father, so Isaac was Abraham's heir. However, he was not Abraham's firstborn. Neither was Ishmael. Ishmael was conceived late in Abraham's life, after Abraham had married Keturah. Keturah's firstborn son was Joktan (Yaqtan), the head of the Joktanite Tribes of Arabia. As Keturah was Abraham's cousin wife, Joktan ascended to the throne of his maternal grandfather. As Sarah was barren, Abraham was still desperate for an heir.

Eliezar, as the firstborn of Masek, one of Abraham's concubines, was apparently the next in line, since Ishmael had been sent away.

Alice C. Linsley said...

I've just written a more thorough explanation, which you may read here:

Dawne Rodela said...

I would like special permission to post your work on my ministry website in the Forum. I am so pleased in the findings you have discovered and would like to share with others about your work.

Thank you
Prayer Mantle
Apostle Dawne

Please, email me:

Alice Linsley said...

Dawne, I can't remember if I emailed you back in May. That was a busy time - end of school year, finals to grade, etc.

You have permission to post any of this research as long as you credit me and link to the original post here at Just Genesis.

Best wishes and God's blessings on your ministry!

Phillip Jiyane said...

The answer to the Misery hidden behind this name is very simple. The Kingdom of Jesus Christ is spiritual - meaning it is easy to understand these characters when you are filled with the holy spirit. In addition to this, it very important to have a continuous fellowship with God the Father and his Son Jesus Christ Through the same Holy Spirit.

So what am I saying to you reader?

Eliezer was a human representation of the Holy Spirit before Jesus Christ Just like Melchizedek. The high priest, King and full of majestic peace and righteousness of God in the name of Jesus.

Alice Linsley said...

Phillip, your mystical typology is wonderfully rich. There is a place for this approach in building up the believer.

My approach is different. I'm more of a Biblical literalist in that I believe Eliezar actually was one of Abraham's sons, and Melchizedek was a historical person who was a ruler-priest and an ancestor of Jesus Christ.