This contradiction, like the one we saw in #42, is more of a narrative inconsistency in the chronology of the story which was created when the later Priestly source was redacted into the early JE storyline.
Genesis 25:7-11 displays features and vocabulary typical to the P source: a heightened concern for ages, dates, genealogies, and marriage, death, and settlement records.1 In this passage we are informed of Abraham’s death: Abraham lived 175 years and expired—a term unique to P. We also know from an earlier P passage that Abraham was 100 years old when he fathered Isaac. And later in this passage we are informed that Isaac was 40 years old when he took Rebekah for his wife (26:34), which would have put Abraham at 140 years of age.
So Genesis 25:7-20 (P) has a clear narrative focus: Abraham expires; he is buried by both his sons, Ishmael and Isaac; we are then informed of Ishmael’s settlement outside of the promised land and exogamous marriage—in other words, P wishes to stress that he has technically forfeited his birthright and inheritance through these actions; Ishmael’s sons are listed; Ishmael expires; and finally we are told that Isaac marries from within the family and settles in the promised land. Following this line of reasoning, we should next be introduced to Isaac’s sons, which we are, but not as a genealogy but as a fanciful narrative typical of the Yahwist’s style. And indeed this is just what we get. Genesis 25:21-26:33 narrates the birth of Esau and Jacob, and discernibly displays Yahwist features: use of the name Yahweh, eponymous use of Esau and Jacob as Edom and Israel, word puns throughout, and the presence of the theme of the firstborn’s usurpation.
The birth of the twins is recounted in Genesis 25:21-26. The Yahwist uses the eponymous identifications of Jacob and Esau to speak of the political realities of Israel and Edom in the 9th and 8th centuries BC, which would have been known to the Yahwist and his audience.
And Yahweh said to her: “Two nations are in your womb, and two peoples shall be dispersed from your insides, and one people shall be mightier than the other people, and the older shall serve the younger.”
Presented in the guise of divine prophecy, the political relationship between Israel and Edom is described in terms of kinship. In fact, the prophecy functions to legitimate the dominance and conquest of Edom by the Israelites which allegedly occurred under David’s rule in the 10th century BC (2 Sam 8:14). Later in the same Yahwist narrative, we are introduced to the blessing Esau receives on the wake of Jacob’s stealing of his older brother’s blessing:
Here away from the fat of the earth shall be your home, and from the dew of the skies from above. And you’ll live by your sword. And you’ll serve your brother. And it will be that when you break loose you’ll shake his yoke from off your neck. (Gen 27:39-40)
Here, Isaac’s default blessing to Esau, like the above prophecy, depicts the political world of the early monarchy, specifically the realities of the 9th and 8th centuries BC when in fact Edom rebelled against Israel’ rule and broke free (2 Kings 8:20-22). Since Edom was an ethnic neighbor bordering the eastern territory of the southern kingdom of Judah, this particular tradition most probably was a product of a southern author, the Yahwist, writing, at the earliest, in the late 9th century BC. Thus, the prophetic announcement of Jacob and Esau’s discord and the latter’s servitude to and liberation from the former is a way of describing, explaining, and legitimizing the political realities of Israel and Edom known to a later historical period. In other words, the brotherly rivalry depicted in Genesis with its divine justification for Jacob/Israel’s supremacy over Esau/Edom is none other than political propaganda meant to legitimate and justify, by evoking divine precedence, Israel’s supremacy over her ethnic rival Edom. This is exactly how political narratives of subjugation were devised and written in the ancient Near East and we will see many more examples.
At any rate, this Yahwist narrative, on a rare occasion, informs us that Isaac was 60 years old when Rebekah gave birth to the twins, Jacob and Esau (25:26). Although J is silent on the issue of whether Abraham is alive or dead at the twin’s birth, in the chronological narrative of our combined textual sources, P has nevertheless already assigned Abraham to the grave in Genesis 25:8. Accordingly then, and given the chronological order of the current narrative, Abraham would have been dead at Jacob and Esau’s birth (25:26).
But the Redactor had to make a choice: insert P’s notice of Abraham’s death, and the genealogy of Ishmael’s sons and his death, before or after the Yahwist narrative recounting Esau and Jacob’s birth. He decides to place this before the Jacob narrative, so J’s account now follows P’s (Gen 25:8), and given J’s date that Isaac was 60 at the birth of the twins, that would make Abraham 160 years old according to the Priestly chronological framework and thus still alive at the twins’ birth!
One reason for this confusing narrative sequence is the fact that chapter 25 is a composite of various sources, stitched together in a rather random order: v. 1-4 (E), v. 5-6 (R), v. 7-11 (P), v. 12 (R), v. 13-20 (P), and vv. 21-33 (J).2 This array of texts leaves P’s Abraham to die in v. 8, and the twins born afterward at v. 26; yet according to the Yahwist, Isaac is 60 years old at the birth of the twins thus making Abraham 160, according to the Priestly tradition, at the twin’s birth and thus still alive.