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

JimStinehart at aol.com JimStinehart at aol.com
Sat Nov 17 18:21:08 EST 2007

Yigal Levin: 
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 
at Harran. 
(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$/"nephesh". 
    1.  You wrote:   “I agree that this interpretation [that Abraham bought 
slaves at  Harran] is unsupported by the text.   These people were obviously 
people who had attached themselves to  Abraham and Sarah - sort of ‘fellow 
I agree with you completely about that. 
    1.  You wrote:   “Whether they were relatives or not, and whether they 
served as  
guards or not is simply conjecture - the text does not  say.”
As I previously discussed, the RK$ 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. 
Jim Stinehart 
Evanston, Illinois

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