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

Yigal Levin leviny1 at mail.biu.ac.il
Sat Nov 17 18:43:26 EST 2007


Dear Jim,

Let's not get carried away. The fact that I don't disagree with you on every 
point does not mean that I accept your whole theory. First of all, as you 
may have seen in my reply to Shoshanna, Alter seems to follow an age old 
tradition when seeing these people as "slaves". But I agree with you that 
the text does not support that interpretation.
However, neither does it support yours. The Patriarchs originated in 
Mesopotamia, NOT Lebanon. No-where does it say that Abraham's "fellow 
travelers" were actually his relatives. There is no evidence that Abraham 
"got rich" from trading goods. In fact, gen. 12:17 says that the pharaoh 
made him rich because of Sarah. Abraham and Lot are pictured as shepherds, 
not traders.

Yigal Levin


----- Original Message ----- 
From: <JimStinehart at aol.com>
To: <b-hebrew at lists.ibiblio.org>
Sent: Sunday, November 18, 2007 1:21 AM
Subject: [b-hebrew] Genesis 12: 5: Are "Souls" Slaves?


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