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

Yigal Levin leviny1 at mail.biu.ac.il
Sat Nov 17 14:14:00 EST 2007

Dear Jim,

What's your point. Only a few of the commentaries and translations that you 
quoted actually called the people "slaves" or "servants". I agree that this 
interpretation is unsupported by the text. These people were obviously 
people who had attached themselves to Abraham and Sarah - sort of "fellow 
travelers". Whether they were relatives or not, and whether they served as 
guards or not is simply conjecture - the text does not say. The Hebrew says 
"hannephesh asher 'asu" - literally "the souls that they had made". The 
question is, why call them "souls" and not just "people" (anashim), and what 
does "made" mean. Assuming that Abraham and Sarah wer not 
proto-Frankensteins who "made souls", it seems to imply that these people 
had some sort of deeper connection to Abraham and Sarah. Traditional Jewish 
commentaries see them as people who Abraham and Sarah had "converted" to 
their belief in the One God. Perhaps, but that's also not what the text 

Yigal Levin

----- Original Message ----- 
From: <JimStinehart at aol.com>
To: <b-hebrew at lists.ibiblio.org>
Sent: Friday, November 16, 2007 3:35 PM
Subject: [b-hebrew] Genesis 12: 5: Are "Souls" Slaves?

> 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
> all.]
> 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
> Canaan.
> 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
> servants.
> Jim Stinehart
> Evanston, Illinois
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