Table of Contents
Part VII: Light From Other Forms of
Cultural Behaviour on Some Incidents in Scripture
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
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.
1 of 24
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.
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."
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.
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
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,
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
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
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
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,
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.
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
Genesis 11:25-27 can be set forth
schematically as follows:
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,
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
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
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).
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.
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,
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
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
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. . . .
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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).
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
Copyright © 1988 Evelyn White. All rights
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