Genesis 35 and 37 are out of order

The writer no longer holds the following position (having been disabused of it by Luther). The post remains in place due to pack-rat compulsions.

Last week’s discussion of Joseph’s second dream only bears merit if Genesis chapters 35 and 37 don’t fall in chronological order. Their anachronlogy has long been my unexamined supposition, but since it has been challenged, I am obliged to investigate and explain the point.

Anachronology in chapters 35–37

  • Gen 35: Rachel gives birth to Benjamin. The sons of Jacob are listed. Jacob and Esau bury Isaac at Mamre.
  • Gen 36: The descendency of Esau is listed.
  • Gen 37: Joseph’s brothers sell him to Ishmeelites.

Chronology between 35 and 37 is clearly discontinuous because chapter 36 lists multiple generations that follow Esau, generations that existed after the characters in chapter 37 were all dead.

There is plenty of logical room, then, to allow that chapter 37 takes up a new thread in the narrative, one which begins before the events of Gen 35. From that footing, lets see what evidence there is:

Location, location, location

The most significant argument for the anachronology of chapters 35 and 37 is where Jacob’s flocks are located at the time that Joseph was sold by his brothers:

And Israel said unto Joseph, Do not thy brethren feed the flock in Schechem? come, and I will send thee unto them…

(Gen 37:13)

The name Shechem rings a bell because Jacob and his family lived there until Gen 35:1, when God instructed them to move to Bethel. Why did they have to move? Presumeably because they weren’t safe in Shechem after Simeon and Levi killed the prominent people of the area for defiling their sister, Dinah.

Jacob certainly thought they weren’t safe:

And Jacob said to Simeon and Levi, Ye have troubled me to make me stink among the inhabitants of the land… they shall gather themselves together against me, and slay me…

(Gen 34:30)

Two verses later, God instructs Jacob to move to Bethel. Why would Joseph’s brothers be grazing their flocks in Shechem (Dothan, to be specific) in chapter 37, unless the events of chapter 35 (and 34) had not happened yet?

Little clues

There are a few little clues to suggest that Gen 37 occurred before Gen 35. They don’t weigh much on their own, but adding them together provides further support for the precedence of chapter 37.

  • Jacob mentions Rachel in chapter 37. “Shall I and thy mother and thy brethren indeed come to bow down ourselves to thee to the earth?” (Gen 37:10)
  • Gen 37:3 says Joseph was “the son of [Jacob’s] old age,” an exclusive title.
  • In chapter 37’s multiple references to Joseph’s brethren and their treachery, never is any exclusion made of Benjamin, though Reuben and Judah are each mentioned by name for their unique performances. If Benjamin were alive, his absence (or abstinence) was surely more divergent from the pack than Reuben or Judah’s behaviour; it should have earned him mention.
  • Jacob witholds Benjamin from going down into Egypt, as though Benjamin were too vulnerable. But if he were alive when Joseph was sold into Egypt, he must have been at least 20 years old by then.
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6 Responses to Genesis 35 and 37 are out of order

  1. Luther says:

    I disagree (surprise!).

    Anachronology: It’s an aside. Genesis 35:27–29 is when Jacob goes to visit Isaac and then he and Esau bury him. And oh, by the way, since we mentioned Esau, Genesis 36 is some of his descendants. OK, back to the story in Genesis 37.

    Location: Genesis 37:14: “So he sent him out of the vale of Hebron, and he came to Shechem.” That is, Joseph traveled at least 50 miles to reach the flocks. Nations were smaller than that. Why they had the flocks 50 miles away is an interesting question, but here shows that Gen 37 must not have happened between 33:18 and 35:6.

    The reference to “thy mother” is notably not a reference to “thy mothers”. Post-Rachel’s death.

    Incidentally, my best guess is Joseph was a child of no more than 5 when Rachel died. Joseph’s birth occasioned Jacob leaving Laban (Gen 30 and 31); Jacob then passes Esau, through Succoth, and settles in Shechem long enough to build an alter. But there’s the mess with Dinah, probably before any of the sons are married (see 34:16; this means Joseph is most likely no more than 5 or 6), so they leave there, arriving next 25 miles south in the place where Benjamin was born, Beth-el (aka Bethlehem), at some point (possibly 37:1?) before Joseph’s fall moving another 25 miles south to the Hebron valley.

    Joseph was too young to go with the flocks initially, being sent only on a short week-long visit instead of a longer flock tending role. Benjamin, assuming he’s even two or three years younger, would have been too young to be involved in any way. Why mention the kid when speaking about the adults?

    Jacob withholds Benjamin because he is too valuable not too vulnerable. He is the only surviving son of the chosen wife and the birthright heir. You don’t send the heir shopping in a dangerous land.

    Re: Gen 37:3, only about half of the translations add in the definite article. “… because he had him in his old age” seems more common.

    • Markham says:

      Luther,

      You have correctly corrected me about the Hebron matter (that is, the flocks were in Shechem, the family was in Hebron). Still, if the events of Gen 37 took place after Gen 34 and 35, it raises an eyebrow.

      Re. ‘thy mother’

      I agree that ‘thy mother’ does not refer to both of Jacob’s wives. However, I posit that it cannot refer to Leah at all. Given how competitive (petty) the two sisters were, it is unlikely that Leah would behave in motherly fashion to the sons of her rival, Rachel, so it hardly seems that ‘thy mother’ would apply to her. I don’t believe that children in polygamous families referred to any of their father’s wives as mother, except for their biological mother.

      Moreover, given that the sons of the concubines are attributed to the concubines in every example where they appear, it is unlikely that the wives were much at being surrogate mothers.

      Re. age of Joseph at Rachel’s death

      It is easy to interpret that Joseph’s birth prompted the departure of the family from Padan-aram. After all, we have the well-remembered tale of Rachel refusing to stand before Laban because ‘the custom of women [was] upon [her].’ However, I suppose that this is something other than a successful pregnancy because Joseph is born (Gen 30:22-24) when Jacob first determines to leave Padan-aram (Gen 30:25-28); after which time, he works an additional six years for the cattle (Gen 30:31, Gen 31:41).

      Re.withholding Benjamin and ‘the’ son of his old age

      A tenable argument. However, I believe that the explanation I offered is also tenable, and coupled with the rest of my argument, I think all points (except the 2nd vision) settle into a probable portrait of events.

      • Luther says:

        Ah, I missed the six years for the cattle. So Benjamin was at least seven years younger than Joseph and more than fourteen years younger than some of the brothers, further reinforcing his not being mentioned with the other brothers when Joseph is sold.

        I just can’t make Rachel being alive in 37 work out. 37 is clearly after they leave Padan-aram. Gen 32 and 33 tells us Jacob went from Padan-aram through Mahanaim over a ford on the Jabbok river toward Seir, (i.e., travelling south on the east side of Jordan) but met Esau before he got there; both turned back, Esau to Seir and Jacob to Shechem. From Shechem Jacob goes to Beth-el and Ephrath, where Rachel dies.

        So when would they have gone to Hebron? Seir is between Hebron and Padan-aram, and Jacob clearly didn’t go through Seir. Beth-el is between Shechem and Hebron, so if they went to Hebron before Beth-el (and neighboring Ephrath) then they were traveling back and forth—likely multiple times, since in 38 and 39 Judah has a wife and a friend Adullam, a city near the Hebron valley.

  2. Matt says:

    In the context of this ongoing discussion, the reference to ‘thy mother’ in Gen. 37 as evidence of the anachronicity of Gen. 35 and Gen. 37 is begging the question.

    Gen. 37:3 has the Hebrew compound word כִּֽי־בֶן־זְקֻנִים (kiy-ben-zaquniym). The first part, כִּֽי (kiy), is a relative conjunction that means “[so] that”, “because”, “since”, “while”, &c.. The second part, בֶן (ben), is a masculine noun that means “son”, “grandson” (rarely), “boy”, “youth”, &c.. The last part, זְקֻנִים (zaqun), is a masculine noun that means “old age” (I’m not sure why it’s used in the plural form). All taken together it means something along the lines of “since [Joseph was a] son [of Israel’s] old age.” You can find parallel uses of the term at Gen. 21:2, 7; and Gen. 44:20. In the Greek Septuagint it is translated as ὅτι υἱὸς γήρους (oti uios gērous), “because [Joseph was a] son [of Israel’s] old age”.

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