[b-hebrew] Genesis 12: 5: Are "Souls" Slaves?
JimStinehart at aol.com
JimStinehart at aol.com
Sat Nov 17 18:21:08 EST 2007
Have you noticed that you and I usually end up agreeing as to the meaning of
the Hebrew words that I ask about? It is very important for me to find out
that I am not the only one interpreting these key Hebrew words this way.
1. You wrote: “What's your point. Only a few of the commentaries and
translations that you quoted actually called the people ‘slaves’ or ‘
The fact is that many prominent scholars insist that Abraham bought slaves
(i) Robert Alter is probably the highest profile scholar there is
regarding the Patriarchal narratives. He translates this part of Genesis 12: 5 as
"the folk they had bought in Haran". And in his comments, Robert Alter
explicitly asserts that these people were "slaves".
(ii) Gesenius translates this part of Genesis 12: 5 as "the slaves which
they had obtained in Haran".
(iii) 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.
So when I start out with Robert Alter and Gesenius definitely against my
point of view, and BDB apparently against my point of view, you can see why I am
bringing this issue to the b-Hebrew list. I am absolutely delighted that
you agree with my interpretation of “souls”/ /NP$/"nephesh".
1. You wrote: “I agree that this interpretation [that Abraham bought
slaves at Harran] is unsupported by the text. These people were obviously
people who had attached themselves to Abraham and Sarah - sort of ‘fellow
I agree with you completely about that.
1. You wrote: “Whether they were relatives or not, and whether they
guards or not is simply conjecture - the text does not say.”
As I previously discussed, the RK$ that Abraham brought to southeastern
Canaan from Harran probably consisted in large part of valuable luxury commercial
goods, which had been purchased on a long caravan trip to Mesopotamia.
Abraham sold that RK$ for a high price in Egypt, and that is why Abraham comes
back to Canaan from Egypt laden with silver and gold.
If so, then of course Abraham needed security guards to guard that RK$ on
the dangerous, long trip from Harran to Canaan and Egypt. One key question, you
see, is whether those security guards were slaves/servants or not. That’s
why this discussion you and I are having here is very important.
Just think what would have happened if these dozen or so “souls” were
Abraham’s relatives, who were acting as security guards on a one-time caravan trip
to Mesopotamia. Many of Abraham’s relatives, most of whom were not on this
caravan trip to Mesopotamia, had contributed to financing this caravan trip.
Thanks to the timely divine advice that Abraham received at Genesis 12: 1,
Abraham had made the audacious, brilliant move of skipping Lebanon (and the
Lebanese middlemen) and had gone directly to Egypt, where Abraham sold the RK$
for a fortune. Not only Abraham, but Lot, and the security guards/relatives,
and all of Abraham’s many relatives who had financed the caravan trip, were
now newly wealthy. So it makes sense that for a short time, most all of
Abraham’s relatives would gather at Hebron, collecting their share of the proceeds
from this lucrative, one-time caravan expedition. And they owed Abraham
big-time for Abraham’s great success in selling the RK$ at such a high price in
Egypt (on behalf of Abraham and all his many relatives).
Now, for the first time, we can understand Genesis 14: 14, a verse on which
you have commented previously. Where did Abraham’s 318 armed retainers, “
born in his household”, come from? In 5,000 years of human history, no one
ever had 2,000 slaves at modest Hebron, from which 318 males of fighting age
could be drawn. No way. These are not slaves or servants. These are Abraham’
s relatives, “born in his household”. For a short time, virtually all of
Abraham’s relatives gathered at Hebron after the hugely successful caravan trip
way out to Mesopotamia. So Abraham could muster 318 relatives as fighters
to rescue Lot and Sodom’s loot, and they took no share of Sodom’s loot.
But that was it. There was no more money to be made at modest Hebron, a
place fit solely for subsistence living herding sheep and goats. There would be
no looting opportunities. Abraham makes no attempt to convert his relatives
to Abraham’s new religious views. Nature takes its course. Almost all of
Abraham’s relatives move away from modest, dull Hebron over the course of the
following 10 years.
So everything makes perfect sense. Eliezer of Damascus makes perfect sense
as being Abraham’s first servant. The “souls they had gotten” at Harran
make perfect sense as a dozen or so relatives who were security guards on the
long caravan trip. And Abraham’s 318 armed retainers, “born in his household”
, make perfect sense as well.
Once we see that the Patriarchal narratives open with Terakh’s family being
on a long, arduous caravan expedition to Mesopotamia, a caravan trip that had
started in northern Canaan/Lebanon, everything about the first four chapters
of the Patriarchal narratives makes perfect sense.
You ask: “What’s your point?” My point is that if we look at what the
Hebrew text of the Patriarchal narratives actually says, and jettison the
Ezekiel-era reinterpretation/misinterpretation of that text (which denies that the
Hebrews were indigenous to northern Canaan/Lebanon), everything in the text
makes perfect sense, in a mid-14th century BCE historical context. That’s my
3. I am always worried that I am misunderstanding the exact meaning of the
Hebrew words. You do not realize how important it is for me to have you
agree with my interpretation of the Hebrew words, even though we continue to
disagree over the implications of what those words entail.
4. You wrote: “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 were not
proto-Frankensteins who "made souls", it seems to imply that these people
had some sort of deeper connection to Abraham and Sarah.”
I agree 100%. You have made my point better than I did.
1. You wrote: “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 says.”
But there, I disagree entirely. Note that throughout the entirety of the
Patriarchal narratives, the Patriarchs never make any attempt to convert anyone
to the Patriarchs’ religious beliefs, except the Patriarchs’ wives (more or
less) and, of critical importance, the favored line of sons. There is no
attempt to instill Abraham’s religious beliefs in either Ishmael or Esau, as far
as we can tell in the text. Likewise, as to these relatives who were
serving as security guards on the long, dangerous caravan trip to Mesopotamia,
Abraham never tries to convert them. Note that, on the contrary, Abraham does not
seem to mind at all when, over the course of 10 years’ time after Lot’s
rescue, these relatives disappear from Hebron, never to be seen again.
Interestingly, the Patriarchal narratives are presenting Abraham as being concerned
only with his own sons, not with his collateral relatives.
If we go with what the Hebrew text actually says, and jettison the
Ezekiel-era reinterpretation/misinterpretation of this text (which
reinterpretation/misinterpretation has been basically unchallenged for 2,500 years now), we will
find that the Patriarchal narratives make perfect sense, on all levels, in
the historical context of the mid-14th century BCE. The text is right there,
before our very eyes, as knock-dead gorgeous as ever, if only we will look at
it with new eyes.
A lot is riding on how one interprets NP$ and (&H at Genesis 12: 5. If
Robert Alter and Gesenius are right that these are “slaves” whom Abraham “bought”
at Harran, then my interpretation of the Patriarchal narratives would be
dealt a serious blow. I am so glad that you agree with my contrary
interpretation of these two key Hebrew words.
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