#45. Was Abraham dead OR alive when Jacob and Esau were born? (Gen 25:7-8 vs Gen 25:21-26)


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.


  1. In general see Carr, Reading the Fractures of Genesis, 101-110.
  2. Friedman, The Bible with Sources Revealed, 70-71.

9 thoughts on “#45. Was Abraham dead OR alive when Jacob and Esau were born? (Gen 25:7-8 vs Gen 25:21-26)

  1. EGross writes:

    “You also might want to compare something where there actually is a discrepancy. The time from when Esau got the backup blessing until Jacob finally leaves, the time he leaves until the time he finally arrives (jewish theologians has him hanging around the school of Shem and Ever [not in the text] for awhile in the interim. Shem is dead.), and the time he gets to Lavan. Those details one has to play loose with or add story to make them work.”

    Can you be more specific? What is the discrepancy here?


  2. Or this Chapter is just not being strictly Chronological because not ti’s Goal, the Numbers it gives tells us when things happen. The Narrative point is to finish Abraham’s story then begin Jacob’s.

  3. May I simply say what a relief to uncover somebody that really understands what they are discussing on the web.
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  4. To add, Abraham died in 2123 (Hebrew calender). Those that would have been alive then would have been Ever (d. 2187) Shem (d. 2158) Shelech (d. 2126) as well as Isaac, Jacob, Esau, Rebecca.

    You also might want to compare something where there actually is a discrepancy. The time from when Esau got the backup blessing until Jacob finally leaves, the time he leaves until the time he finally arrives (jewish theologians has him hanging around the school of Shem and Ever [not in the text] for awhile in the interim. Shem is dead.), and the time he gets to Lavan. Those details one has to play loose with or add story to make them work.

  5. The problem seems to be that you assuming that the Torah narrative is sequential, which it is not. There are visual clues and grammatical ones, which would require much writing to get into. But in this case it is telling you how many years Abraham lived, then going back to the last episode, about his son Isaac, continuing onward about Isaac until the death of his father Abraham, when it all comes back together You will find that particular style in other places as well. A reverse of that will be found at the end of the book of Genesis. Critisizing style is not the same as finding a contradicion. The text is actually clear as to the grandchildren being born when Abraham was 160 years old and still alive. (You will also find that Isaac will be alive when Joseph is a king in Egypt and it does a similar jump. Here are the years of Abraham in order (some items):

    Age 86 – Ishmael is born (Gen. 15:15)
    Age 100 – Isaac is born (Gen 21:5)
    Age 140 – Isaac gets married at age 40. (Gen. 25:20)
    Age 160 – Esau and Jacob are born when Isaac is 60. (Gen. 25:26)
    Age 175 – The total years of his life (Gen. 25:7)

    So no, it is not an inconsistancy, it is just not having an understanding of the narrative style. An inconsistancy would be if it gave ages that didn’t work out in the end.

    1. EG. Thanks again for your very erudite comments. Let me try to defend my position a bit here. If I’m assuming anything, which perhaps I am in this case, it is the separate sources themselves. And since I have gained a bit of familiarity with the features, style, vocabulary, and themes of these sources, they, at times, do guide my textual analysis. I will try to eliminate this on future posts, and stick with just starting from the texts.

      Second, I don’t assume that the narrative is sequential. That is the assumption of the combined narrative itself—i.e., the text as it has come down to us presents itself as a continuous homogeneous narrative. This appearance of a narrative “whole” is itself broken down by acknowledging the textual inconsistencies and contradictions, the narrative “seams and fractures” as one scholar put it, which are themselves the textual data that has supported a 3-centuries old scholarly hypothesis—that the biblical text itself is a composite of conflicting textual traditions.

      Furthermore, it is the P source itself that specifies ages, dates, and genealogies, and the Yahwist source only does this on a couple of occasions, and with drastically different results. I could have referenced contradiction #12 where in the Yawhist text it is said that Yahweh limits the life-span of mortals to 120 years, AND this holds true in the Yahwist source: Joseph dies at 110 and Moses at 120. The Priestly writer uses a different chronology, and in this account has Abraham living to 175, which would have contradicted the Yahwist tradition if indeed this tradition had stipulated Abraham’s age at his death.

  6. I see that this presents a problem with the chronology, but I don’t see how it’s a contradiction, strictly speaking. It’s feasible that the fifteen-year-old twins could’ve been present at Abe’s funeral and simply weren’t mentioned, right? For that matter Shem, Eber and Shelah could’ve all been there as well. All three were supposedly still alive (based on the MT’s numbers anyway).

    1. I agree and was hesitant to present this as a contradiction, but did so as a pretext to discuss how the narrative chronology is skewed once P’s texts are inserted into the JE narrative. Some scholars have argued that the Priestly writer has a neatly constructed genealogy which focuses on 1) having both sons (Ishmael/Isaac and later Esau/Jacob) present at the patriarch’s death (Abraham and later Isaac (Gen 35:28)); and then 2) one son marries outside of the family and settles outside the land, one marries within and receives the blessing—note in E (Gen 21) Ishmael has already left Canaan and settled in Seir, while P seems to imply it happens now at Abraham’s death; and then 3) the start of the next generation. Since the Priestly text does not recount the birth of Jacob and Esau, it remains unclear in this textual tradition whether or not Abraham is still alive at the twin’s birth, i.e., whether P intended it that way or not. As the JEP text now stands, narratively speaking, it’s just an inconsistency: Abraham dies, the twins are born, but Abraham is still alive.

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