|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.
Related reading: Abraham's Two Concubines; The Conversion of Hagar; Why Eliezar was Abraham's Heir; Abraham's Sons