#66. Where was Benjamin born: Bethlehem OR Paddan Aram? (Gen 35:16-19 vs Gen 35:23-26)


The book of Genesis gives 2 contradictory responses to the question where was Benjamin born: Bethlehem and Paddan Aram.

And they traveled from Bethel, and there was still a span of land to come to Ephrath; and Rachel gave birth and she had a hard labor… And it came to pass as her soul was departing—for she died—that she called his name Ben-oni [i.e., son of my sorrow], but his father called him Benjamin [i.e., son of the right hand]. And Rachel died; and she was buried on the road to Ephrath. It is Bethlehem. (Gen 35:16-19)

And Jacob’s sons were 12. The sons of Leah were Jacob’s firstborn: Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah, Issachar, and Zebulun. The sons of Rachel were Joseph and Benjamin. And the sons of Bilhah, Rachel’s maid were Dan and Naphtali. And the sons of Zilpah, Leah’s maid, were Gad and Asher. These were Jacob’s sons who were born to him in Paddan Aram. (Gen 35:22b-26)

Geographically, Bethlehem which is in the land of southern Canaan, is world’s apart from Paddan Aram or northern Mesopotamia. So what exactly is going on here? Did the biblical scribes just not know? Are they making this up as they go along? Is one of them purposely lying? This implies that one of them is true and accurate. Can we be sure? Is Benjamin even an historical person? Can we even be certain that the biblical scribes understood Benjamin as an historical figure?

I want to move us in the direction of starting to think about what the biblical scribes were doing as they renarrated and rewrote traditional stories. In fact the questions above can be applied to all the contradictions we have looked at and will look at over the next few years.

Bear in mind too that all these questions are predicated on the assumption, on the general modern reader’s assumption, that these narratives were historical, that the Bible’s authors were writing history, and that they too viewed these events and personages as historical. But do the textual data—our contradictions—support these reader-oriented assumptions? This is an important question, and I have not even broached the more fallacious assumption by many modern readers that these stories—these contradictions—are the word of God, some god, or Yahweh. In other words, a large part of this project’s aim is to use the biblical data, the textual data themselves, to check our culutre’s assumptions about these texts and their authors. So let’s start to give this some serious thought.

This is a small enough and clear enough contradiction for us to talk a little bit about what the intentions of the biblical writers might have been. First, we should note that the former text is from the Elohist tradition, but that need not be known nor certain for us to see the contradiction. The second version is most definitely from the Priestly writer. It displays this writer’s interest in genealogical lists which we have seen elsewhere.

I have often speculated, following the work of David Carr (Reading the Fractures of Genesis), that the 6th century BC Priestly writer was familiar with the earlier Elohist and Yahwist traditions, and that he was consciously redrafting a new Israelite “history” so that it better conformed with his views and his own audience’s specific needs and concerns (e.g., #24, #28, #32, #40, etc.). If he knew the Elohist story about Benjamin being born in Bethlehem, then why did he consciously change it? What does that tell us about whether or not the Priestly writer understood this as historical? How can he blatantly change history?

Even if the Priestly writer was writing a new “history” of Israel’s archaic past to a audience enduring diversely different historical circumstances than the Elohist writer’s audience, he most likely saw his new composition as replacing the older JE narrative. It was however only due to a centuries later editorial endeavor that both “histories” were stitched together to form a unified narrative, the text as we now have it. So we need not think that P was writing a new version to contradict the older one, which he was, but rather from his perspective he was writing another version to replace the older one, a second edition if you like—albeit one that now supported and conformed with his own ideology.

I think it is significant that all of Jacob’s sons are born outside of Canaan in the Priestly version. In fact, I think that this was the Priestly writer’s conscious intention, whether he was familiar with E’s version or not! In other words, this author is saying that Israel, its identity, its legendary 12 tribes, had its origin outside of the land of Canaan. If it is true that the Priestly writer is writing to and for a community of exilic Jews held in captivity in Babylon, where issues of preserving Israelite identity among the pagan practices of the Babylonians must have been strong, then a story that emphasized the birth of the legendary 12 tribes of Israel outside of Canaan might have been extremely significant.

Conversely, other post-exilic texts (Ezra, Nehemiah, Malachi, Chronicles) display a sharp polemic against those people who remained in Canaan during the exile and who also claimed Israelite identity. This polemic denied such claims. Israel was born in Babylonian captivity! In this context, P’s rewriting of “history” to have it say that the 12 Israelite tribes were all born in Mesopotamia speaks volumes. So is “history” being consciously sculpted and shaped by our biblical scribes and by their own needs and concerns?

E’s version of Benjamin’s birth could just as well have been shaped by the concerns of its author and/or audience. It does not strike me as a coincidence for instance that the story of Rachel’s hard labor and death nicely provides for the meaning of the name Ben-oni. Could the perceived meaning of the name, “son of my sorrow/hard labor” have given rise to the narrative itself? We should also note that this story gives a certain amount of religious significance to Bethlehem. Was it created for that purpose? We will revisit these questions when we discuss the gospel narratives of Jesus.

I hesitate with this, but here goes… Can we draw an analogy between our 2 biblical versions of Benjamin’s birth with the recent productions of two different and contradictory Spiderman films, the Tobey McGuire one and the Andrew Garfield one? In other words, both producers felt free to shape, adopt, and alter the storyline depending on their needs, concerns, and central message they each wished to convey. And that’s sort of my point. What was being conveyed in these narratives? In other words what did our biblical writers think they were conveying? Historical data or stories that served to provide important meanings and messages beyond the historical?

I’m not sure if the Spiderman analogy is apt. But I do know that we don’t view these as contradictory because they’re stories, film, fiction. Could this have been similar to how these biblical narratives were viewed by their authors? I feel that the answer to this question won’t be clear until we get to the book of Deuteronomy, where what the author is doing will become more transparent.

In other words, telling stories often served purposes other than relaying historical information. Is this how we ought to view our biblical scribes? Was their central message, and the very fact that they could freely be reshaped, anything other than historical even though, like our Spiderman movies, they are presented as historical narratives in an historical setting? Is Benjamin any more historical than say Achilles? But wait, that’s not even the real question here. The real question is did our biblical authors think that Benjamin was historical? If so, they surely felt free enough to say different, and contradictory, things about where he was born.

5 thoughts on “#66. Where was Benjamin born: Bethlehem OR Paddan Aram? (Gen 35:16-19 vs Gen 35:23-26)

  1. Your diligent efforts in exposing these biblical contradictions and, hence errors, is astounding. Please keep up the good work!

  2. “surething, ask yourself if you’re sincerely trying to understand the text, and by that I mean who wrote it, to whom, and why, or are you trying to get the text to say what you’ve been taught it ought to say or to conform to your beliefs?”

    You might ask yourself the same question. Have you ever considered that “these are the Bnei Ya’akov, which were born to him in Padan Aram” might have had some idiomatic significance of which you are unaware, or has been obscured in the sands of time?

    Do you think the scribes were so stupid that they could not read the words immediately preceding, and it takes a clever fellow like yourself to read a long-dead language correctly, thousands of years later? Rather than saying “aha, here’s a contradiction I can wave about”, a student of ancient (and possibly proto-) Hebrew might wonder exactly what the author was trying to say. Might there have been a law or custom that ascribed Benjamin’s birth to Padan Aram?

  3. Tradition claims Benjamin was born ‘in Bethlehem’? Which one? Bethlehem in the North or the Bethlehem (Ephrath) in the South? And Paddan Aram is not Paddan Aram in Genesis? Please explain.

  4. Except, once again, the text does not say what you say it does:

    Gen 35:16 NIV – Then they moved on from Bethel. [Where did the go? The text doesn’t really say.] While they were still some distance [I.e., they weren’t even close.] from Ephrath [Bethlehem], Rachel began to give birth and had great difficulty.

    So you suggest Benjamin was born in Bethlehem, even though the text says he wasn’t? Please. But what about the second part – about Benjamin being born in Paddan Aram? Well, Paddan Aram was just a general region and it is disputed what area it encompassed. It is not like they had GPS and survey teams plotting out boundaries.

    1. surething, ask yourself if you’re sincerely trying to understand the text, and by that I mean who wrote it, to whom, and why, or are you trying to get the text to say what you’ve been taught it ought to say or to conform to your beliefs? I realize the issues here are sensitive ones, but I earnestly wish to have a conversation about the biblical texts first and foremost, and on their own terms and in their own historical and literary contexts, and then secondly add ourselves into the equation. The first part in and of itself is extremely difficult because these texts, which were once independent and separate, are now “read” and understood through a centuries-later interpretive framework which we call “the Bible,” literally “the Book.” That label itself prescribes, and I would argue wrongly, how these texts ought to be read. So I’m trying to move us back to reading and understanding these texts before they ever were co-opted by later readers (and they had their reasons and agendas) as part of “the Book.” What is the Bible? will give you a clearer idea of this, and maybe propose a methodology for doing just this. See also Studying the Bible objectively. With respect to the second part, these are some of the questions that emerge and that I’m interested in: What if the ways in which we were taught, via age-old tradition, to read the text is different from the ways in which it was originally read and understood? And there will be a difference because originally there was no “Bible.” Are we neglecting the biblical authors’ own meanings, messages, and purpose for composing their texts and to whom, when we know nothing about these things and read them only with our own beliefs and agendas in mind and/or through later interpretive frameworks, which themselves are often legitimated through appeals to divine authorship? —this too is a later invention. The Bible’s textual history is very complex.

      Text A claims that Benjamin was born on the road to Bethlehem. Tradition claims ‘in Bethlehem,’ but if you want to bring the text to bear upon/against tradition, I have no problem with that. Text B says Paddan Aram, and this is not the only reference to Paddan Aram in Genesis (see #46-47 and #48-49). Yes we do know where it is, and yes so did the biblical writers. It is norther Mesopotamia—modern day Iran I believe. So the texts are contradictory. That is fact. More speculatively, we may hypothesize as to why the authors disagreed, or why one author changed the tradition, etc. Read the rest of the post. I offer some tangible solutions, and good textual analysis.

      Then we must move to the even bigger picture—look at hundreds and hundreds of other contradictions which reveal the Bible’s textual history—each with their reoccurring similar traits, vocabularies, theological emphases, styles, etc. Myself and many of my colleagues have done this in the objective pursuit of gaining knowledge about the texts, the texts’ history, authors, audiences, etc.). The textual evidence is overwhelming and convincing. I would suggest Richard Friedman’s book, The Bible with sources Revealed, and if you’re up to the task the scholarly book by David Carr, Reading the Fractures of Genesis. These books not only clarify better the sources that went into the making of the Pentateuch, but more so provide the rationale behind why scholars have claimed and continue to claim that Genesis, for example, was composed of different textual traditions, each displaying variations in style, emphasis, theology, etc. The Documentary Hypothesis is still the best hypothesis that explains the textual data. We, as a culture, need to start being more honest to these 3,000-2,000 year old texts. Again, I realize this is a sensitive issue, and I don’t want to lose your input here. This is a forum where I want both theist and atheist to discuss the texts, period. I hope we can do that.

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