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.