Thursday, February 17, 2011

Continuity Errors in the Hebrew Bible?

One of the features of narrative in the Hebrew Bible that as long caught my notice is the common use of place names prior to the aetiological story that explains the source and significance of the name. Logically this inconsistency can only mean that either a later editor went back through and updated names without regard for continuity OR a later writer was using names he was familiar with before getting to the story that explained where the name came from. Either way, the biblical writers were less concerned with what today might be called continuity errors. The most concise example of the phenomenon is Genesis 33:17.

Genesis 33:17 (ESV):

17 But Jacob journeyed to Succoth, and built himself a house and made booths for his livestock. Therefore the name of the place is called Succoth.  [Succoth = booths]

A more chronologically problematic example is the use of the name "Bethel" in reference to Abram's travels in Genesis 12:8 and 13:3. The name "Bethel" is given by Jacob, Abram's grandson, in Genesis 28:19!

Sometimes it's unclear whether the issue is continuity or chronological disorder. For example, Judges 13:25 described Samson growing up "in Mahaneh-dan, between Zorah and Eshtaol." Samson is the last great judge portrayed in the book of Judges: the long narrative of his exploits extends from Jdgs 13 to 16. The rest of the book contains a series of bizarre yet related tales in Jdgs 17-21. Those stories contain this relevant bit of information for the name "Mahaneh-dan" (literally "camp of Dan").

Judges 18:11–12 (ESV)

11 So 600 men of the tribe of Dan, armed with weapons of war, set out from Zorah and Eshtaol, 12 and went up and encamped at Kiriath-jearim in Judah. On this account that place is called Mahaneh-dan to this day; behold, it is west of Kiriath-jearim.

Do the events of Judges 17-21 chronologically precede the story of Samson? It makes sense to group the narratives of major judges together and leave off a story that fits this time period yet focuses on no particular judge or leader.

I don't have the answers and these little details are of no great doctrinal import, but I hope this at least provides a sampling of "Things that make Bible scholars go, Hmmm...."


  1. Obviously Judges 17-21 does not follow 1-16 in chronological order. You have Phineas the Priest in chapter 20 and his first cousin Gershom's son Jonathan in chapters 17-18. Samson came several centuries later.

  2. So, Phinehas and Jonathan are two generations after Moses and Aaron and contemporary. Therefore, Samson obviously came later? While I agree that Samson's exploits against the Philistines likely fit a time later than 1 generation after the conquest, there are no generational clues in the Samson narrative to relate it to the scheme. Also there is the issue of Judges 19-21 describing the Danites moving out of the region of Mahaneh-dan, while Manoah, Samson's father, is identified as one of the clan of Danites living in that region. So, it's not really obvious which came first. I suppose it's possible that all the Danites didn't move north.

  3. Wasn't it often the case that notes about how places got their names and so forth were added by later editors rather than the Jawhist or Elohist sources?

  4. Forced to become a wanderer, Cain travels east to the land of Nod (=wandering). Does Cain's wandering define the land? This could be interpreted as a continuity error. The more problematic one in this narrative is Cain's descendants, Jabal and Jubal, who are said to be the ancestors of individuals who belong to the narrators present day. According to the larger narrative of Genesis 1-11, only Abel's descendants are preserved through the flood.

  5. Hey Doug,

    Thank you for bringing up this feature of the Bible that is intriguing but not likely to go anywhere (i.e. result in published work). I have a pet theory about Bethel. It stems from a documentary model but might work in others.

    Basically I understand the naming of Bethel in Gen 28 to be limited to E. J contains only the appearance of and speech from YHWH, while the "stairway to heaven" vision, the naming, and the name-related vow come from E. In Gen 12 and 13, J uses "Bethel" because he doesn't know/care about the etiology of the place-name.

    Again, this is not something I am going to submit to JBL, just something that I worked out while wondering about the place-name, so feel free to flame!

  6. Kevin, your answer assumes the existence of E as an independent source, something even scholars who still accept some version of the Doc Hypothesis don't agree on. Positing any kind of later tweaking of the text w/o regard for accurate continuity is kind of my point anyway. Bottom line is these issues hint at the fractures of the text that show where ideas like the doc hypothesis came from.