[b-hebrew] The Meaning of the Name "Bera", Ruler of Sodom

JimStinehart at aol.com JimStinehart at aol.com
Thu Dec 4 15:25:29 EST 2008


Karl:
 
1.  You wrote:  “Where do you get the silly idea that his [Bera’s] name 
meant "in evil"?”
 
I don’t know why you characterize that traditional view as being “silly”.  
Here is the thoughtful analysis of that traditional view by one of the finest 
commentators on the Patriarchal narratives, Gordon J. Wenham, “World Biblical 
Commentary:  Genesis 1-15” (1987), Thomas Nelson, Nashville, Tennessee, at p. 
309:
 
“It is striking that the kings of Sodom and Gomorrah have names compounded 
with resh-ayin ‘evil’ and resh-shin-ayin ‘wicked’.  It is not surprising that 
from the targumists onward, commentators have suggested that ‘Bera’ and “
Birsha’ are pejorative nicknames given to these kings.”
 
That traditional view is not “silly”, even though I no longer accept the 
validity of that traditional view.
 
2.  You wrote:  “[S]hort of interviewing his parents, we cannot know what the
 name meant. Or did you somehow manage to interview his parents?”
 
You are assuming that each name in the Patriarchal narratives is a passive 
recording of an actual historical name.  Most scholars, by contrast, see many 
such names as having an appropriate underlying meaning.
 
3.  You wrote:  “The king who went out to fight against the invasion fled, 
and fell (died).  See verse 10.”
 
Bera did not die at Genesis 14: 10, in the aftermath of his military defeat.  
Here are the relevant sections of the text:
 
“Now the vale of Siddim was full of slime pits; and the kings of Sodom and 
Gomorrah fled, and they fell there, and they that remained fled to the mountain. 
 …And the king of Sodom went out to meet him [Abraham], after his return from 
the slaughter of Chedorlaomer and the kings that were with him, at the vale 
of Shaveh--the same is the King's Vale.”  Genesis 14: 10, 17
 
The identical phrase, translated by JPS1917 as “king of Sodom”, is used at 
both Genesis 14: 10 and Genesis 14: 17.  The logical implication is that Bera 
survived the military defeat.  It makes no sense to think that a thoroughly 
looted Sodom could have quickly anointed a new ruler of Sodom, who would 
graciously greet Abraham.  No, Bera is very thankful to have Lot and the loot of Sodom 
returned to Sodom.  The word NPL, meaning “fell”, is similar to English, in 
that it in no way mandates a meaning of “died”.  Here is a perceptive 
scholarly comment about that word in its Genesis 14: 10 context by E.A. Speiser, “
Genesis” (1962), Doubleday, New York, at p. 102:
 
“10.  ‘flung themselves’.  Literally ‘fell’;  but the Heb. stem (npl) often 
carries a reflexive connotation, notably in the phrase ‘to fall on one’s neck
’ (xxxiii 4, xiv 14, xlvi 29), which describes a voluntary act;  see also 
xvii 3.”
 
Robert Alter takes a similar approach in translating Genesis 14: 10 as 
follows:
 
“And the Valley of Siddim was riddled with bitumen pits, and the kings of 
Sodom and Gomorrah fled there and leaped into them, while the rest fled to the 
high country.”
 
Finally, consider the following specific comment from a noted Christian 
scholar, Bruce K. Waltke, “Genesis:  A Commentary” (2001), Zondervan, Grand 
Rapids, Michigan, at pp. 230-231, who has a somewhat different take on the matter:
 
“‘fled’.  The point seems to be that they escape from the battle (see 14: 
17).  ‘some of the men fell into them’.  The Hebrew, ‘they fell into them’, is 
ambiguous.  It could mean that ‘[the kings] threw themselves into’ the pits. 
 ‘To fall’ is also often a term in battle, but verses often cited to support 
‘threw themselves into’ include an additional preposition that clarifies the 
meaning.  Probably this verse refers to the troops, not the kings, since the ‘
rest’ (of the troops) is juxtaposed with ‘they’.  The meaning then is that 
during their flight, the troops fall into the pits.”
 
The scholars who have focused on this issue do not see Bera of Sodom as dying 
at Genesis 14: 10.  We are not, however, sure whether or not Bera died until 
Genesis 14: 17, when we effectively find out that Bera survived, as Abraham is 
warmly greeted by the ruler of Sodom, who must logically be Bera himself.
 
4.  You wrote:  “[T]here was nothing magnanimous in Abraham's rejection of 
the loot.
 When we look at Abraham's words, he basically said in modern terms ‘Keep 
away from me, I don't want to touch you nor yours with a ten foot pole’."
 
That’s not a fair reading of the text.  Abraham’s words are in fact very 
magnanimous and gracious:  
 
“And Abram said to the king of Sodom: 'I have lifted up my hand unto the LORD 
[YHWH], God Most High, Maker of heaven and earth, that I will not take a 
thread nor a shoe-latchet nor aught that is thine, lest thou shouldest say:  I 
have made Abram rich;  save only that which the young men have eaten, and the 
portion of the men which went with me, Aner, Eshcol, and Mamre, let them take 
their portion.'”
 
When Abraham starts by referring to “LORD [YHWH], God Most High, Maker of 
heaven and earth”, one knows that what will follow will be magnanimous and 
gracious to a fault.  
 
5.  You wrote:  “This is ridiculous! People don't change from fine people to 
desperately wicked in just a few short years. That takes generations.”
 
Not true, not in Late Bronze Age Canaan, from an early Hebrew point of view.  
The people who lived in what we today call northern Lebanon had been decent 
people.  But then when the Hittites made them an offer they could not refuse, 
the people of northern Lebanon, under their leader Aziru, iniquitously sold out 
northern Lebanon (Amurru) to the dreaded Hittites.  That was precisely what 
the early Hebrew author of the Patriarchal narratives feared that the people of 
the Jezreel Valley might do next year!  Those people in the heart of Canaan 
had been decent enough before.  Note that the men of Sodom fight against the 
four invading rulers in chapter 14 of Genesis.  The men of Sodom are not wicked 
at that point.  No, only when Bera, the proper, good ruler of Sodom, is 
wrongfully ousted, do the people of Sodom turn to the dark side.  In the face of a 
Hittite offer that they could not refuse, the people of Sodom iniquitously sell 
out the Jezreel Valley to the dreaded Hittites.  That was the early Hebrews’ 
worst nightmare.  One of the primary purposes of composing the Patriarchal 
narratives was to try to prevent that terrible event from happening.
 
Note that  e-v-e-r-y  person in Sodom (except Lot’s immediate family) is evil 
in chapter 19 of Genesis.  They can’t all be sex fiends or inhospitable.  
That would be “ridiculous”, to use your word.  No, what happened is that all the 
people who had recently taken over Sodom agreed to sell out to the Hittites, 
in order to avoid a threatened Hittite attack.  In particular,  a-l-l  the 
people of Sodom agreed that they would not harbor any anti-Hittite outside 
agitators, who might be sent to Sodom by an anti-Hittite figure like Abraham (who 
was known throughout Canaan for having rescued Lot from the Hittites).  That is 
why  a-l-l  the people of Sodom are evil in chapter 19 of Genesis, from an 
early Hebrew point of view.  All the people of Sodom have agreed to sell out the 
Jezreel Valley to the Hittites, in order to avoid the Hittites’ wrath, and 
they will not allow any anti-Hittite outside agitators (which is what they 
strongly suspected the two angels at Lot’s house of being) to operate in Sodom, for 
fear of triggering a deadly assault upon Sodom by the dreaded Hittites.
 
6.  You wrote:  “While a few consonants were sometimes dropped in derivative 
words, most were not except in cases of consonantal doubling. Ayin is one of 
those that
 is never dropped except in cases of consonantal doubling. Hence this 
"analysis" violates what is known about Biblical Hebrew linguistics.”
 
That is precisely the linguistic point I am making.  Whereas a final ayin was 
an integral part of the 3-consonant root in Biblical Hebrew (in the Iron Age 
and later), that was not the case in the Bronze Age.  The 3-consonant root 
theory often does not work in the context of Semitic languages that precede 
Hebrew, such as Akkadian, Assyrian and Ugaritic.  My point is that in proper names 
from the Bronze Age that appear in the Patriarchal narratives, the later 
3-consonant root theory of fully-developed Biblical Hebrew often does not apply.
 
That is precisely my point.
 
7.  You wrote:  “[E]ven after being directed to professional archeologists 
whose work indicate that Beth Shean at the time you believe Abraham lived was 
merely a garrison town with no wealth of its own, you persist in your nonsense 
of equating it with Sodom.”
 
Karl, did you read that fine article that you yourself cited about Beth Shan? 
 Let me quote a few passages from that article, which totally contradict your 
claim that “Beth Shean… was merely a garrison town with no wealth of its own”
.
 
(a)  “The most important finds belonged to the Late Bronze Age and Iron Age 
I, which was the time of the Egyptian New Kingdom (15th-12th centuries BCE). 
During this era, Beth-Shean served as the center of Egyptian imperial rule in 
the north of Israel. This period yielded temples, governors' residencies, and  
dwelling quarters of the soldiers and officials of the Egyptian garrison 
stationed at the site.  …During a period of over 300 years of the Egyptian New 
Kingdom, Beth-Shean served as the center of Egyptian Pharaonic rule in northern 
Land of Israel.  …[T] here was no significant Canaanite settlement at the site 
during this period.  Beth-Shean essentially served only as the headquarters of 
Egyptian rule, containing administrative buildings, temples, and dwelling 
quarters of the Egyptian officials and the soldiers serving in the Egyptian 
garrison.” 
 
Thus Beth-Shan was both rich and totally dominated by the Egyptian garrison 
there.  There was no other place remotely like that in all of inland Canaan.  
Note the explicit mention of “temples” and “governors' residencies”, clearly 
indicating that there was a great deal of lootable wealth at Beth Shan.
 
 (b)  “One of the rooms was a bath, having no known parallels in Canaanite 
architecture. The room was well plastered with impermeable plaster, and it 
contained four plastered steps, reminiscent of the Second Temple Period ritual 
baths. A feeding channel and a drainage channel were found as well.”
 
The comparison of a bath at Egypt-oriented Beth Shan to a Second Temple 
Period ritual bath is rather shocking, isn’t it?  Note the great wealth that was 
there at Beth Shan.  There were great looting opportunities at Beth Shan.
 
The proper ruler of Sodom, namely Bera, is portrayed as being a good person.  
So what happened?  How did Sodom go so wrong?  Your own fine citation gives 
us the key clue:
 
“Each of these sub-periods contained two occupational phases;  the latest of 
each one of them being destroyed in a violent destruction.  These three 
subsequent destructions [of Beth Shan] during the time of the New Kingdom could have 
been caused by uprisings of the local population during periods of weakness 
in the Egyptian hold over Canaan at the end of the 18th, 19th and finally the 
20th dynasties.”
 
We now realize that the isolated Egyptian garrison at Beth Shan was 
vulnerable to being overrun by the local Canaanites.  It happened three times in the 
Late Bronze Age!  So Bera was vulnerable to being overthrown by the local 
Canaanites, who could then sell out Beth Shan and the Jezreel Valley to the dreaded 
Hittites.  Those local Canaanites were not crazy.  No, in the face of Egypt’s 
apparent weakness at the time, those local Canaanites might decide to throw in 
their chips with the mighty Hittites.  Ousting Bera would neatly prove their 
pro-Hittite, anti-Egypt bona fides.
 
This was a life and death matter to the early Hebrews.  The tent-dwelling 
Hebrews did just fine with Egypt as the nominal overlord of Canaan, where Egypt 
had only a handful of troops on the ground in Canaan, and the people of Canaan 
were largely free to operate on their own.  By contrast, the Hebrews were 
gravely afraid that the Hebrews might be wiped out if the dreaded Hittites invaded 
Canaan, with Beth Shan being the Hittites’ logical main target. 
 
Jim Stinehart
Evanston, Illinois

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