The historical Jacob

I have been reading the article “Comments on the Historical Background of the Jacob Narrative in Genesis” by Israel Finkelstein and Thomas Romer. It is available in PDF format here.

As mentioned when I wrote about Finkelstein’s The Forgotten Kingdom there are some points of contact with the ideas of Igor Lipovsky. Lipovsky thinks there were two patriarchs, Israel and Jacob, whom the Hebrew Bible merged to create a common ancestor for the northern and southern tribes. The Israelite tribes of the north descend from Hyksos who left Egypt in the 16th century. Their history has been lost because it has been subordinated to that of Judah.

Finkelstein’s position is different but it is relevant to someone like me who does not buy Lipovsky’s theory in its entirety, but thinks there is something to it.

In his joint article with T. Romer, Finkelstein brings together his opinion that the United Kingdom of Judah and Israel never existed with his opinion that Hebrew writing and scribal activity did not develop until the second half of the Iron Age. Romer is one of the scholars who agree with Erhard Blum that the Pentateuch was put together by Priestly writers no earlier than the time of the Exile and that this was the first time a continuous narrative existed.

This means that the Pentateuch distorts history in favor of a mythical history centered on Judah and the Jerusalem Temple. (I should note that I do not agree with this theory and incline toward a modified version of the documentary hypothesis.) The Pentateuch greatly discounts the importance of the Northern Kingdom. The Priestly writers were the first to link the stories of the Patriarchs to Moses and the Exodus. These were originally two competing origin myths.

What is interesting is that even given this hypersceptical view of the Hebrew Bible, Finkelstein and Romer suggest that there is old and possibly historical material about Jacob that comes through.

The beginning place is Hosea 12. This chapter shows that there was a settled pre-exilic tradition about Jacob.

It included the story about Jacob wrestling with an angel at Bethel (Hosea 12:4). So there was an old story about Jacob as the founder of an El worshipping sanctuary at Bethel. The vision in Genesis 28 draws on an ancient, polytheistic tradition. It originally saw El and Yahweh as two different entities.

Hosea also included something of the Jacob-Laban story (12:12). This may include the oldest and most historically significant material. From Genesis 31:48-49 emerges the fact that there was originally a border between a Transjordanian Jacob territory and Aram at Mizpah. The authors place Mizpah at Tell el-Masfa on a height overlooking the Jabbok valley, the most eastern point of a polity of the bene Ya’aqob, the sons of Jacob, that existed in the dim past.

This also lends credibility to the story of the ancient founding of a temple at Penuel along the Jabbok.

The Jacob-Bethel stories are later and all tied up with propaganda for the cult of the Northern Kingdom. The authors think the setting for this was more Jeroboam II than Jeroboam I. They say that the role of Jeroboam I in founding the Bethel temple was probably invented by the Deuteronomists. Jeroboam I, according to the oldest tradition, just renewed temples at Shechem and Penuel.

Thus the original Jacob tradions all had to do with the Gilead region west of the Jordan. They “migrated” when Jeroboam II sought to centralize the northern priesthood and worship at Bethel.

The shrine at Bethel came to honor “the local Gilead hero Jacob”, while another shrine at Samaria (based on its mention in the Kuntillet ‘Ajrud inscription) continued to venerate the Exodus origin myth.

It was not until about the time of the Exile that priests from Judah connected the Jacob stories with the Abraham and Isaac stories. Then during or after the Exile, these were connected to the Moses stories.

I think Finkelstein and Romer date everything a little too late. Before the Exile Hosea 12:12-13 puts Jacob’s story together with the Exodus story.

What I find interesting, though, is the idea of an early presence of some kind of proto-Israel in the Gilead region and along the Jabbok.

These authors do not use anything from the Joseph stories. It seems to me, though, that an old tradition about the burial of Jacob at Abel Mizraim (we don’t know precisely where that is) west of the Jordan (Genesis 50:10-11) has been superseded by sanctuary traditions about his burial in Abraham’s tomb near Hebron and another one about his burial at Shechem.

The route of Jacob’s funeral entourage in Genesis 50 makes no sense. They go to the Transjordan to mourn and then turn around and come back to Hebron for the burial. Something is going on there. So the other material connecting Jacob to the Transjordan makes me wonder.

This might support Igor Lipovsky’s idea that northern Israel had some connection with the Hyksos in Egypt. However, it would cut against his identification of Jacob with his southern tribes.


About theoutwardquest

I have many interests, but will blog mostly about what I read in the fields of Bible and religion.
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