[b-hebrew] Genesis 12: 5: Are "Souls" Slaves?

JimStinehart at aol.com JimStinehart at aol.com
Fri Nov 16 08:35:39 EST 2007

Genesis 12: 5:  Are "Souls" Slaves? 
In the prior posts on this thread, we looked at the  controversial word RK$ 
at Genesis 12: 5 (which means "transportable goods", and  which arguably at 
Genesis 12: 5 may focus on "luxury goods", in my view, as is  clearly the focus 
of the word RK$ in chapter 14 of  Genesis). 
A more conventional controversy regarding Genesis 12: 5  is the question of 
whether that verse states that Abraham bought slaves in  Harran, and brought 
such slaves to Canaan.  In my view, Abraham did not buy any slaves or servants 
at Harran.   
The nub of this question turns on the interpretation of  the following two 
Hebrew words at Genesis 12:  5: 
nun-pe-shin/NP$/"nephesh":  "souls" 
ayin-sin-heh/(&H/"'asah":  "gotten" 
Genesis 12: 5 tells us that certain people came with  Abraham and Lot from 
Harran to Canaan, who almost certainly were not members of  the immediate family 
of Abraham or Lot:  "the souls that they had gotten in Haran".  Are these 
people "slaves", who had been  "bought" by Abraham and Lot in Harran?  Or, 
rather, are these people distant relatives of Abraham's father, whose  families were 
the social equals of Abraham's father's family, and who were on a  long 
caravan trip out to Mesopotamia with Abraham's father's family as security  guards? 
Here is the JPS1917 translation of Genesis 12:  5: 
"And Abram took Sarai his wife, and Lot his brother's  son, and all their 
substance that they had gathered, and the souls that they had  gotten in Haran;  
and they went  forth to go into the land of Canaan;  and into the land of 
Canaan they  came." 
1.  (a)  Other translations of the key phrase  "the souls that they had 
gotten in Haran"  are: 
KJV:  "the  souls that they had gotten in Haran" 
English Standard Version:  "the people that they had acquired in  Haran" 
Darby:  "the  souls that they had obtained in Haran" 
Young's Literal:  "the persons that they have obtained in  Charan" 
American Standard Version:  "the souls that they had gotten in  Haran" 
Robert Alter:  "the folk they had bought in Haran"  [Robert Alter 
specifically comments that these people were  "slaves".] 
E.A. Speiser:  "all the persons they had obtained in Haran"  [Oddly enough, 
in his long book E.A.  Speiser makes no specific comment about Genesis 12: 5 at 
Gerhard von Rad:  "the persons that they had gotten in Haran"  [Oddly enough, 
in his long book Gerhard  von Rad makes no specific comment about Genesis 12: 
5 at all.]   
Richard Elliott Friedman, "Commentary on the Torah"  (2001):  "the persons 
whom they had  gotten in Haran"  [Oddly enough, in his long book  Richard 
Elliott Friedman makes no specific comment about Genesis 12: 5 at  all.]   
Gesenius:  "the slaves which they had obtained in  Haran" 
(b)  Note  that several translators explicitly insist that the "souls" who 
were "obtained"  by Abraham and Lot are actually "slaves" whom Abraham and Lot 
had "bought" in  Harran.  We will soon see, however,  that such view does not 
make sense. 
(c)  BDB explains NP$/"nephesh" as follows:  "coll. for 'persons', in  
enumerations…elsewhere only Gn 12: 5". 
As to (&H/"'asah", BDB  says:  "acquire property of various  kinds…Gn 12: 5". 
 The implication of  that remark by BDB seems to be that the souls that 
Abraham and Lot acquired in  Harran were "property", i.e. slaves. 
2.  For the  reasons that will now be discussed, the view that the "souls" 
that Abraham and  Lot had "gotten" in Harran are "slaves" (a type of 
"property"), and that Abraham  and Lot had "bought" these people in Harran, must be 
rejected.  First and foremost, NP$ does not mean  "slaves", and (&H does not mean 
"bought".  Indeed, the fact that the literal  meaning of NP$ is "souls" (or 
"breathing") emphasizes the humanity and  importance of these people.   
Moreover, under no circumstances would Abraham and Lot be  buying slaves in 
Harran.  If Abraham  and Lot were being forced to migrate to Canaan from 
Mesopotamia because of  adverse economic circumstances (not my view), they would 
certainly not be in  position to be buying slaves at Harran.  Alternatively, if 
Abraham's father, Abraham and Lot were wealthy  Mesopotamians who could afford 
to buy slaves at Harran (also not my view), why  then would they be wanting to 
move to modest, unsophisticated Canaan?   
On my controversial view, Abraham and his father's  relatives have taken off 
from their violence-prone ancestral homeland in  northern Canaan/Lebanon to go 
on a one-time caravan trip way out to  Mesopotamia.  On my view, Abraham  and 
Lot would certainly not be buying slaves in Harran, when their money (and  
the money of all their many relatives who had helped finance this long caravan  
expedition) had been used up buying luxury goods in Mesopotamia. They would 
not  have any ready cash again until such time as the luxury goods are sold in  
Egypt.  Abraham and Lot will be in  position to acquire servants in Egypt, 
after they have sold their valuable  luxury commercial goods in Egypt at a very 
high price.  Genesis 12: 16  But until then, Abraham and Lot have no  ability 
or desire to be buying slaves, in my view.   
As I see it, there simply is no scenario under which it would make sense  for 
Abraham and Lot to be buying slaves in Harran on the eve of traveling to  
On the other hand, it appears that when Abraham and Lot  got to Damascus, 
near Canaan, a single servant came into Abraham's household,  who may have been 
age 15 regular years at the time.  If, as I view the case to be, Abraham  had 
very few (if any) servants when he left Harran, that servant acquired on the  
road in Damascus could quickly have become Abraham's main servant, as most of  
Abraham's servants were acquired later, after Abraham had sold the RK$/luxury  
commercial goods in Egypt.  That  servant obtained in Damascus is referenced 
2½ regular years later (when the  servant may be age 17½ regular years) at 
Genesis 15: 2 as follows:  "And Abram said: 'O Lord [Adon]  GOD [YHWH], what wilt 
Thou give me, seeing I go hence childless, and he that  shall be possessor of 
my house is Eliezer of Damascus?'"  Genesis 15: 2  If Abraham had many slaves 
or servants  upon leaving Harran, it is unlikely that a servant acquired 
thereafter in  Damascus would so quickly have become Abraham's top servant.  
Looking ahead, it is likely that after  that same servant from Damascus has served 
Abraham for 32½ regular years (and  such servant may now be age 47 regular 
years, while Abraham is an old man age 70  regular years), that servant is 
referred to again in chapter 24 of Genesis,  though this time not by name:  "And  
Abraham said unto his servant, the elder of his house, that ruled over all that  
he had:  'Put, I pray thee, thy hand  under my thigh."  Genesis 24: 2  At age 
47, such servant from Damascus  would be old enough, and would have served 
Abraham long enough, to be "the elder  of his house".  But such servant  would 
also still be young enough to make the arduous trip out to Harran on the  upper 
Euphrates River to secure Rebekah as the ideal bride for Abraham's son and  
sole heir, Isaac.  (Everything  always makes perfect sense in the Patriarchal 
narratives, if we just think about  it long enough.) 
As I see it, Abraham had few if any servants upon leaving  Harran, and 
acquired only one servant (in Damascus), who quickly became  Abraham's #1 servant, 
on the long trip from Harran to southeastern Canaan.   
In a later post, we can discuss who these "souls" were,  over whom Abraham 
and Lot obtained responsibility in Harran.  In my view, they were not slaves,  
servants, or indentured servants.  As I see it, the reference at Genesis 12: 5 
to living, breathing NP$/"nephesh"/"souls" is not a  reference to slaves or 
Jim Stinehart 
Evanston, Illinois

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