Stories were as much a part of the ancient world as the television is for us today. People told and heard stories on a daily basis. It was part of their lifeblood. Stories defined a people’s identity, explained the origins of current political and religious institutions, and preserved traditional beliefs, worldviews, and customs.
Most stories enjoyed a long oral tradition before they were finally written down. In many cases alternative versions of these stories existed. A people living at one place in time might tell the story that they inherited from their forefathers differently in order to suit the needs of their community, or to better represent its changing views and beliefs. One can easily imagine changing narrative details in an old story in order to modernize its message. If you’ve ever seen a modern production of a Shakespeare play, or Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, you know what I mean.
These differences or variations on the same story were often the result of an oral tradition’s flexibility. Stories and traditions were told and retold from generation to generation and often with slight variations or modifications, and these variations were often shaped by the concerns of the reciter or the community for which they were intended.
The ancient Israelites were no exception. They told stories, retold stories, modified their stories, recited them at festivals, and eventually wrote them down, collected them, and codified them as scripture. The Bible as it has come down to us preserves numerous stories, and many of them are duplicates—that is, a traditional story that was told in one manner at one place and time and told in a variant manner at another place and time. In the end, these different versions were written down by scribes and thenceforth became unalterable. Later editors who collected Israel’s various stories preserved both versions of the story, even when, as we shall see, they contradicted one another, or a later story was written to replace an earlier version! In fact, doublets—two versions of the same story—have always been good indicators for identifying different textual traditions or sources in the Bible. The contradictory stories that we will look at in this chapter are just that—variations on the same story that were told differently to different communities in different geographical areas. It is only due to scribes living centuries later that these variant versions were preserved side-by-side in the biblical text as it now stands.
Many stories in the ancient world have their origins in other stories and were borrowed and modified from other or earlier peoples. For instance, many of the stories now preserved in the Bible are modified versions of stories that existed in the cultures and traditions of Israel’s older contemporaries. Stories about the creation of the universe, a cataclysmic universal flood, digging wells as land markers, the naming of important cultic sites, gods giving laws to their people, and even stories about gods decreeing the possession of land to their people were all part of the cultural and literary matrix of the ancient Near East. Biblical scribes freely adopted and modified these stories as a means to express their own identity, origins, and customs.
When a story set in the archaic past betrays its date of composition by referring to peoples, places, borders, and events that belong to a much later time period, centuries later, we call these anachronisms, and they help us identify the date of composition for these stories. For example, say I wrote a story that was set in France in the 1920s and then all of a sudden I introduced characters who were using iphones. You might chuckle, but this is an anachronism. It tells us that the author who wrote this story lived at a period in time when people used iphones, and he retrojected that reality back into the past. Or another common anachronism that we will run across has to do with geography. Lacking proper knowledge of the past, an ancient story teller who told stories about the archaic past would often retroject into that past the geopolitical borders and countries of his own time period, thinking that that was the way it had always been. So for example, if I wrote a story set in the American frontier of the 1800s and talked about characters passing over the border of Mississippi or Nebraska, etc., when no such borders nor states existed, these would be anachronisms.
There are numerous anachronisms of this sort throughout the Bible, and they have enabled scholars to date many of the Bible’s earlier compositions. Common anachronisms often mentioned in the stories in the book of Genesis are references to Philistines, camels, and border disputes and towns that existed in the author’s own time period, and not the time period implied by the narrative setting. The mention of Abraham’s border dispute with the Philistine king Abimelek (Gen 21:22-33), for example, is an anachronism. We now know through a variety of archaeological and literary remains that the Philistines did not enter the land of Canaan until the 12th century BC and could not have historically been present in any narrative set in the 18th century BC. Rather the author has retrojected his own geopolitical reality into the archaic past. In fact, this particular story of a border treaty with the Philisitines most likely represents the historical circumstances of the 10th and 9th centuries BC when Israel often found itself fighting for border control with its coastal neighbor. In this particular case, the treaty Abraham establishes with king Abimelek which explicitly marks Beersheba as belonging to Abraham and his seed serves to legitimate Israelite possession of Beersheba during the early monarchal period. So the story served a political function in the time period that it was created. In the ancient world, the most popular way of legitimating the possession and borders of your land was by means of a story set in the archaic past were a founding father figure had laid claims to the land, and often by digging wells and establishing cultic sanctuaries to its god.