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Legalistic “Glosses” in Biblical Narratives

  • Raymond Westbrook


The genealogy of Israel in the book of Chronicles contains the following notice: (1 Ch. 2:34–35):

Sheshan had no sons, only daughters; but Sheshan had an Egyptian slave named Jarha. Sheshan gave his daughter to his slave Jarha as a wife and she bore him Attai.

Sheshan's purpose in marrying his daughter to his slave was to ensure that the offspring of the union would be regarded as his grandchildren. Moreover, as Japhet points out, the Chronicler has carefully crafted the details of the story, in particular the mention of a foreign slave, so that Sheshan's tactic will conform with the slave laws of the Torah. According to Ex. 21:2–6, the children would undoubtedly be the master's, since the master had given him his wife. Lev. 25:41, however, suggests that an Israelite slave might be able to take his children with him on leaving. The identity of the father as a foreign slave avoids any difficulty on this point: he cannot leave his master at all, and any children sired by him are unquestionably his master's.



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1 Japhet, S., “The Israelite Legal and Social Reality as Reflected in Chronicles: A Case Study”, in Fishbone, M. and Tov, E., eds., Sha'arei Talmon (Eisenbrauns, Winona Lake, 1992) 7991.

2 Op. cit., at 88–89.

3 For the latter, see Noth, M., The Deuteronomistic History, trans. Doull, J. et al. , from German, 1967, Journal for the Study of the Old Testament Supplement Series 15 (JSOT Press, Sheffield 1967, Noth 1943).

4 For a summary of the different theories, see McCarter, , II Samuel (Anchor Bible) (Doubleday, New York, 1984) 323324. McCarter's own suggestion, that the marriage, although illegal, could be permitted by the king, seems to us less plausible. A king might pardon incest (cf. Hittite Laws 187–188), but he could not make an incestuous union, which was a sin against God rather than man, legitimate.

5 This is the version in Kings; Chronicles has “shall die”.

6 Both the identity of such commentators and their exact role in the creation of the biblical text — author or editor — is open to discussion. Fishbane, M. attributes the role of inner-biblical exegesis to the class of Jewish scribes that emerges in the Josianic period: Biblical Interpretation in Ancient Israel (Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1985) 2537. Neither issue affects the validity of our findings. The legal method that we are describing would apply equally whether the commentator was an author glossing a known account, perhaps from royal annals, when incorporating it into the biblical canon or a scribe glossing the biblical text that he copied.

7 Noth, M., Das vierte Buch Mose (Vandenhoek & Ruprecht, Göttingen, 1966) 222; Snaith, N., Leviticus and Numbers (The Century Bible, Nelson, London, 1967) 345346. Snaith is incorrect, however, in assuming that the ruling in Num. 27:1–11 is bad law because it contradicts the levirate law (308–310). The two are not incompatible, although there might be some question as to the priority of the daughter's inheritance.

8 North, R., Sociology of the Biblical Jubilee (Analecta Biblica 4, Pontifical Biblical Institute, Rome, 1954) 35; Compare Gray, J., Numbers (International Critical Commentary, Scribner, New York, 1906) 478.

9 For Mesopotamian parallels, see Lewy, J., “The Biblical Institution of derôr in the Light of Akkadian Documents” (1958) 5 Eretz-Israel 2131. Royal decrees on the release of slaves (discussed below) also applied, mutatis mutandis, to release of land.

10 Compare Westbrook, , “The Dowry”, in Property and the Family in Biblical Law, Journal for the Study of the Old Testament Supplement Series 113 (JSOT Press, Sheffield, 1991) 142164.

11 Bright, J., Jeremiah (Anchor Bible, Doubleday, New York, 1965) 223224.

12 Lemche, N., “The Manumission of Slaves – The Fallow Year – The Sabbatical Year – The Jobel Year” (1976) 26 Vetus Testamentum 3859.

13 David, M., “The Manumission of Slaves Under Zedekiah” (1948) 5 Oudtestamentische Studien 6379, at 74–75.

14 Sarna, N., “Zedekiah's Emancipation of Slaves and the Sabbatical Year”, in Hoffher, H., ed., Essays Presented to Cyrus H. Gordon, Alter Orient und Altes Testament 22 (Butzon & Bercker, Kevelaer, 1973) 143149 at 148.

15 They are best attested for the OB period, but are found at other periods. See Kraus, F.R., Königliche Verfügungen in altbabylonischer Zeit, Studia et Documenta ad Iura Orientalis Antiqui Pertinentia 11 (Brill, Leiden, 1984); and Westbrook, R., “Social Justice in the Ancient Near East”, in Irani, K. and Silver, M., eds., Social Justice in the Ancient World (Greenwood, Westport, 1995) 154160. The biblical parallels, especially between Hebrew and Akkadian terminology have frequently been commented upon. See, e.g., Lemche, N., “Andurarum and Misarum” (1979) 38 Journal of Near Eastern Studies 1122.

16 See M. Noth, op. cit., for the identification of the Deuteronomistic historian.

17 See Westbrook, op. cit., 160–161.

18 Vv. 5–6, Masoretic text. The Septuagint has “seven-fold”.

19 The difficulties for the unity of the narrative are summarized by Jones, G., The Nathan Narratives, Journal for the Study of the Old Testament Supplement Series 80 (JSOT Press, Sheffield, 1990) 96100.

20 Phillips, A., “The Interpretation of 2 Samuel xii 5–6”, (1966) 16 Vetus Testamentum 242244.

21 Followed by P. K. McCarter, op. cit., at 299, who translates “a fiend of hell”.

22 Compare the word “dead” to describe a condemned criminal: see Westbrook, , “A Matter of Life and Death” (1997) 25 Journal of the Ancient Near Eastern Society 6170.

23 Seebass, H., “Nathan und David in II Sam 12” (1974) 86 Zeitschrift für die Alttestamentliehe Wissenschaft 203211.

24 For a detailed discussion, see Westbrook, , Studies in Biblical and Cuneiform Law, Cahiers de la Revue Biblique 26 (Gabalda, Paris, 1988) 3035.

25 Driver, S.R., Notes on the Hebrew Text and the Topography of the Books of Samuel (2nd ed., Oxford, 1913) 291.

26 For example, the reference to two witnesses in the treason trial of Naboth (1 K 21:10, 13) – an integral part of the narrative or an added reference to the law in Dt. 16:6 and 19:15.

* Johns Hopkins University.

Legalistic “Glosses” in Biblical Narratives

  • Raymond Westbrook


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