[b-hebrew] Order of Death: A Key to Understanding Genesis

JimStinehart at aol.com JimStinehart at aol.com
Tue Sep 20 17:21:43 EDT 2011

Stephen Shead:
1.  In response to my assertion that "Though we don’t hear about Abraham’s 
sons by minor wives until a later point in the text, nevertheless such sons 
WOULD HAVE BEEN sired by Abraham at a younger age", you wrote:
“Really? How do we know? Genesis certainly doesn't tell us that. All of 
them born before Ishmael in Genesis 16??? Then why on earth does Sarah say what 
she does in Gen 16:2? And why did Abraham say in Gen 15:2 that Eliezer of 
Damascus would be his heir, if in fact he already had at least half a dozen 
natural sons?”
(a)  Genesis 16: 2 reads as follows:  “ 
(http://www.blueletterbible.org/Bible.cfm?b=Gen&c=16&v=2&t=KJV#comm/2) And Sarai said unto Abram, Behold now, 
the LORD hath restrained me from bearing: I pray thee, go in unto my maid; it 
may be that I may obtain children by her. And Abram hearkened to the voice 
of Sarai.”
Sarai has never borne a child to this point.  Using a custom documented at 
the Hurrian province of Nuzi [and remembering that Abram and Sarai had spent 
some time near there, at Harran in eastern Syria], Sarai gives Abram one of 
Sarai’s maids to be the birth mother of a son on Sarai’s behalf.  The key 
is that Hagar is  S-a-r-a-i ’ s  handmaiden, not a concubine of Abram’s.  
Abram had previously sired 6 named sons by Keturah, so Sarai and Abram both 
knew that Abram was fully capable of siring sons.
(b)  Genesis 15: 2 is probably best understood as being a cry of 
exasperation by Abram, rather than being a heartfelt proposition by Abram.  Moreover, 
the translation of “childless” is not the literal meaning of the Hebrew 
word, which means “void of aid” or “stripped bare” or “desolate” or “solitary
”, etc.  What Abram is alluding to is that he is desperate to sire a proper 
male heir by his beloved main wife Sarai, which just is not happening.  
Abram is not in fact complaining about any lack of virility on Abram’s part.  
To that point, Abram had sired 6 named sons by minor wife Keturah, and 
probably about 4 other sons by other concubines, but Abram did not want to name 
any of those sons by minor wives as his heir.  Abram never says that Abram is 
not virile.  Indeed, almost immediately after Sarai gives Hagar to Abram, 
Hagar promptly gets pregnant.  So Abram’s complaint is not a complaint about 
his own lack of virility [with Abram, like the other Patriarchs, being plenty 
virile], but rather the complaint is that Abram’s beloved original main 
wife #1, Sarai, unfortunately has reached middle age and is still barren.  In 
the ancient world, as you probably know, if a man was capable of having 
relations with a woman, but the woman did not get pregnant, then everyone assumed 
that it was the woman who had the problem, not the man.  Though we would 
not necessarily jump to that conclusion today, that was ubiquitous throughout 
the ancient world.
(c)  The text presents Abraham as being righteous and admirable in no small 
part because Abraham properly insists on having a proper male heir by his 
beloved original main wife #1.  [Abraham in fact has only one main wife, 
Sarah.]  The depth of Abraham’s righteousness in this regard does not become 
fully apparent to the audience until chapter 25 of Genesis, when belatedly the 
author reveals that Abraham had sired many sons by minor wives.  In the 
ancient world, one’s heirs were normally and properly one’s children by one’s 
main wife, and normally and properly excluded children borne by minor wives 
or concubines.
2.  You wrote:  “In fact, if the author of the Patriarchal Narratives had 
wanted us to see the connection, why on earth would he not have specified 
that there were 4 sons of concubines?? And named them also, as was customary? 
There is no reason whatsoever for the omission.  Actually, I think the most 
likely explanation for the lack of names is that the "sons of his concubines" 
is a shorthand for Ishmael and the sons of Keturah (notwithstanding the 
details his relations with Hagar and Keturah, in terms of their respective 
statuses). That is, they have already been numbered and named, and there aren't 
12. And Keturah is called Abraham's "concubine" in 1 Chr. 1:32, so there is 
ancient interpretation on my side.”
(a)  At a minimum, Abraham has 8 named sons.  The text presents Abraham 
siring Isaac in Abraham’s old age as being semi-miraculous, a feature which is 
an integral part of the Covenant between Abraham and YHWH.  So we know that 
Abraham’s other 7 named sons were born before Isaac.  The implication is 
that the 6 named sons by Keturah were born before Ishmael, because at the time 
that Abram sires Ishmael, Abram and Sarai are already getting quite old.  So 
even on your theory of the case, Ishmael is the second to last born of 8 
named sons of Abraham.  That is comparable to Joseph being the second to last 
born of 12 named sons of Jacob.  In fact, there is no reason to think that 
Abraham had only one minor wife or concubine, namely Keturah.
(b)  The Hebrew author of the Patriarchal narratives is a master 
storyteller who gives us only enough information to enable us to be able to figure 
things out, and sometimes he strategically withholds certain information until 
later, so that we find out certain important information after the fact.  
The text implies that Abraham had 12 blood sons, without explicitly stating 
3.  You wrote:  “Jim, what you fail to mention is that, aside from this 
supposed instance, NPL is never used in the Patriarchal narratives to mean 
"die". Not once, not even with a faint dying connotation. In fact, as far as I 
can tell, in the whole Hebrew Bible, where NPL means "die", it is almost 
always (if not always) in the context of battle - i.e. "fell [in battle]" - 
clearly not applicable in this case. It is simply not a normal word to report a 
person's death.”
Please see Genesis 14: 10 in this regard:  “And the vale of Siddim [was 
full of] slimepits; and the kings of Sodom and Gomorrah fled [NPL], and fell 
there; and they that remained fled to the mountain.”
Several commentators have noted that if the text ended here, we would think 
that the princeling ruler of Sodom had “died”, since NPL in a battle 
context normally implies “died”, not merely “fell”.  But in fact, we find out 
at the end of chapter 14 of Genesis that the princeling ruler of Sodom had 
merely literally “fallen” into the slimepits, rather than having died there.  
It’s a great example of how NPL can mean “die”, and it’s also a great 
example of how the Hebrew author often makes us wait before giving us 
additional important information that is needed to understand things he has said 
4.  You wrote:  “Furthermore, there is a clear reference to the prophecy of 
Genesis 16:12: "He shall be a wild donkey of a man, his hand against 
everyone and everyone's hand against him, and he shall dwell over against all his 
kinsmen." The last phrase is almost identical to the last part of Gen. 
25:18: W(L-PNY KL-)XYW Y$KN. The only difference is that, in Gen. 16:12, the verb 
$KN "settle, live, dwell" is used, rather than NPL.”
(a)  Yes, the different verb makes all the difference.  The second half of 
Genesis 25: 18 is telling us Ishmael’s order of death.
(b)  You use the translation “kinsmen”, but that’s not what the Hebrew 
text of Genesis 16: 12 says.  It says:  “brothers”.  Ishmael has no 
full-brothers, but as we have been discussing, Ishmael has many half-brothers.  As to 
the Hurrian state of Mitanni in eastern Syria, Abraham’s sons MDN and MDYN 
by Keturah are sent out “east” to Mitanni [Genesis 25: 6], yet Ishmael’s 
descendants are there, too, as MDN-YM/Mitannians at Genesis 37: 27-36, so we 
know that Ishmaelites are interacting with Abraham’s sons by Keturah in 
eastern Syria.  More importantly, of course, is that these particular Ishmaelites 
pass right through the center of Canaan, near where Ishmael’s elderly 
half-brother Isaac and Abraham’s grandson Jacob are living, and take Joseph to 
Egypt as a slave.  So the Ishmaelites also interact with Ishmael’s half-brother 
Isaac in Canaan, at least indirectly, and they interact very directly with 
Isaac’s descendants in Canaan.
(c)  Once again, the old KJV is a rare accurate translation of the second 
half of Genesis 16: 12:  “and he shall dwell in the presence of all his 
brethren.”  Based on the last third of chapter 37 of Genesis, we know that that 
prophecy comes true in spades.  Ishmael dwells in the presence of his 
half-brothers, and so naturally Ishmael’s descendants interact both with the 
descendants of Keturah’s sons MDN and MDYN in eastern Syria, as some Ishmaelites 
are Mitannians/MDN-YM, and more importantly some Ishmaelites traverse Canaan 
proper and take Joseph [the grandson of Ishmael’s half-brother Isaac] to 
Egypt as a slave.  Chapter 37 shows that the prophecy at Genesis 16: 12 is 
confirmed to the nth  degree.
5.  You wrote:  “In sum: "the Hebrew text of Genesis" tells us none of the 
things you claim it does.”
The Hebrew text presents each of Ishmael and Joseph as being the second to 
last of many sons born to a great Patriarch, who nevertheless predeceases 
all of his many older half-brothers.  Neither Ishmael nor Joseph is picked by 
his father to be the leader of the next generation of the Hebrews, though 
each had been his father’s favorite son.  The birth mother of neither Ishmael 
nor Joseph is the original main wife #1 of such son’s father the Patriarch.  
[Joseph’s mother Rachel married Jacob 7 days after Jacob first married 
Leah, so that Leah is Jacob’s original main wife #1, not Rachel.]  If, as is a 
reasonable surmise, Abraham had 12 blood sons, then the birth order and death 
order of Ishmael and Joseph is  i-d-e-n-t-i-c-a-l :  each is the second to 
last born of 12 sons of a great Patriarch, who nevertheless predeceases all 
10 of his older half-brothers, showing divine disfavor for this son whose 
birth mother was not his father’s original main wife #1.  That’s what the 
received Hebrew text is telling us.   
Jim Stinehart
Evanston, Illinois

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