Why is there so much inbreeding in the book of Genesis/Bereishit? After the first two Torah portions, most of the major characters are descended from Abraham’s father, Terach, through multiple lines. The branches of their family tree keep growing together again.
The Torah does not say how many wives Terach has, but it does name four of his children at the end of the Torah portion Noach. He has three sons: Avram (whom God renames Abraham), Nachor, and Haran.1 He also has a daughter named Sarai (whom God renames Sarah).2 While they are all living in the southern Mesopotamian city of Ur, Avram and Nachor marry their own relatives.
Avram and Nachor took wives for themselves. The name of Avram’s wife was Sarai, and the name of Nachor’s wife was Milkah, the daughter of Haran … (Genesis 11:29)
In other words, Avram marries his half-sister, Terach’s daughter, and Nachor marries his niece, Terach’s granddaughter.
Terach leaves Ur and heads toward Canaan with some of his family members. Halfway there they stop and settle in the town of Charan, where Terach dies.3
Thanks to archeology, we know that Charan was an actual city where the main road north from Ur met the main road that went southwest to Canaan. Both Charan and Ur were dedicated to the moon-god Nannar. The residents of those two cities worshiped many other gods as well, in temples stocked with idols. They also kept terafim, figurines of lesser gods, to protect their households.
Terach would probably acknowledge Nannar, but his primary god might be a different deity. In last week’s Torah portion, Chayei Sarah, both Betueil (son of Nachor and Milkah) and Betueil’s son Lavan use the same four-letter name of God that Avram uses (commonly represented in Roman letters as Y-H-W-H).4 Later in Genesis, Lavan says “Y-H-W-H” has blessed him, and he makes a vow in the name of “the god of Nachor”.5 But he is not a monotheist; he also owns terafim.6
Lekh-Lekha and Vayeira
Does Terach hear the voice of God, Y-H-W-H? The Torah is silent.7 But it is conceivable that he starts traveling toward Canaan because he hears the same voice in Ur that his son Avram hears in Charan:
“Go for yourself, away from your land and from your relatives and from your father’s house, to the land that I will show you.” (Genesis 12:1)
For Avram, that land turns out to be Canaan.
Avram hears God’s voice many more times in the portions Lekh-Lekha and Vayeira. On five occasions God promises him that his descendants will inherit the land of Canaan.8 God informs him that first those descendants will be enslaved in another land for 400 years.9 God demands circumcision for every male in his household and all of his future descendants, alters the names of Avram and Sarai, and promises that Sarai (now Sarah) will have a son at age 90.10 Avram (now Abraham) talks God into agreeing not to wipe out Sodom and Gomorrah if there are even ten innocent people living there.11 When Sarah demands that Abraham cast out his first son, Ishmael, along with Ishmael’s mother, God tells him to do what Sarah says.12
Terach’s daughter Sarah also hears God’s voice. When three men who turn out to be angels visit in the Torah portion Vayeira, she overhears one of them say that she will have a child the following year. Sarah, who is 89, laughs silently. Then she hears God asking Abraham: “Why did Sarah laugh?”
And Sarah lied, saying: “I did not laugh,” because she was afraid. But [God] said: “No, for you did laugh.” (Genesis 18:15)
Abraham and Sarah do have a son. Isaac is probably 26 when his father hears God order him to sacrifice that son on an altar. God calls him off at the last minute, and Abraham goes home alone.13 Then he gets news from Charan: Nachor and Milkah (Abraham’s brother and niece) had a son named Betueil, and Betueil now has a daughter named Rebecca.14
Abraham arranges a marriage for Isaac fourteen years later, in the Torah portion Chayei Sarah. He insists that Isaac must marry one of his relatives back in the Aramaean town of Charan. He adds the condition that the bride must be willing to move to Canaan, because he wants Isaac to stay in Canaan.
Why does he reject the idea of simply getting Isaac a Canaanite wife?
In last week’s post I proposed that Abraham worries Isaac might stray in his religion, after the trauma of being bound as a sacrifice to his father’s god. (See Chayei Sarah: Arranged Marriage.) Since his extended family in Charan worships Y-H-W-H (among others)15, a wife from that branch of the family would not tempt Isaac away from serving the God of Abraham.
But there is another possible reason for marrying Isaac to one of his relatives. Perhaps Abraham believes his covenant with God can be best continued through the generations if as many of his descendants as possible can hear God’s voice. For that, more inbreeding might help.
Rebecca may be exactly the young woman Abraham has in mind as a bride for Isaac. After all, she is descended from Terach through both Nachor and Milkah. She agrees to go to Canaan, and marries Isaac.
In Toledot, this week’s Torah portion, Rebecca is alarmed by her pregnancy; it feels as though a wrestling match is taking place in her womb.
And she went to inquire of God. And God said to her: “Two nations are in your womb, and two peoples will branch off from your belly. One people will be mightier than the other, and the older will serve the younger.” (Genesis 25:22-23)
The text does not say where Rebecca goes to inquire of God; some commentary suggests that she consults an oracle. But the text does say that God speaks directly to her, and it uses the name Y-H-W-H. The voice of God is correct; Rebecca has twins, Esau and Jacob, who eventually found two peoples in the Torah: the Edomites and the Israelites.
Rebecca’s husband Isaac, who is descended from Terach through both Abraham and Sarah, also hears God’s voice.
And God appeared to him that night and said: “I am the god of Abraham, your father. Don’t be afraid, because I am with you, and I will bless you and increase your descendants for the sake of my servant Abraham.” (Genesis 26:24)
Jacob proves more intelligent and more patient than his twin brother Esau.17 The Torah does not say whether his parents realize that Jacob is the better candidate to carry on the covenant with God. Isaac fumbles his delivery of the blessing of Abraham, Esau is enraged at the result, and Rebecca tells Jacob to flee to her brother Lavan’s house in Charan. Then she tells Isaac that she is disgusted with the Hittite women Esau married, and she could not bear it if Jacob also married one of the local women.
Isaac calls in Jacob. Rebecca has not told him where to send Jacob for a bride, but Isaac decides to continue Abraham’s family breeding program.
And he said to him: “Do not take a wife from the daughters of Canaan! Rise, go to Padan Aram, to the house of Betueil, your mother’s father, and take yourself a wife from there, from the daughters of Lavan, your mother’s brother.” (Genesis 28:1-2)
Thus he orders Jacob to marry one of his first cousins, who also carries more than the usual share of Terach’s blood (or genes).
As soon as Jacob leaves home he, too, hears the voice of God. In next week’s Torah portion, Vayeitzei, he dreams of God’s angelic messengers ascending and descending between heaven and earth, and then sees God standing over him. God confirms that the blessing of descendants who will inherit Canaan has gone from Abraham to Isaac to Jacob.
And [God] said: “I am God [Y-H-W-H], the God of your father Abraham and the God of Isaac. The land which you are lying on I will give to you and to your descendants.” (Genesis 28:13).
Jacob marries both of Lavan’s daughters, and their eight sons (plus Jacob’s four sons with Lavan’s daughters’ servants) become the ancestors of the twelve tribes of Israel.
Being able to hear God is not a unique trait of Terach’s descendants. Before the Flood, God converses with Adam and Eve, Cain, and Noah. After the flood, God speaks twice to Hagar the Egyptian and once to Avimelekh of Gerar.18 But most of God’s words in the Genesis are addressed to Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Rebecca, and Jacob, all inbred descendants of Terach.19
There is no record in the Torah of God speaking to any of Jacob’s children. Perhaps a few of them would be able to hear God’s voice, but God chooses to be “with” them without words. It may be enough for God that all the inbreeding among Terach’s descendants results in the genesis of the Israelite people. The next time God speaks in the Torah is in the book of Exodus when God needs a prophet to bring the Israelites from Egypt to Canaan, and chooses Moses.20
In the Torah, God is one of the characters, and converses with some of the human characters. Is this only a literary device to make the stories juicier? Or does it also reflect some deeper truth?
When individuals today claim to have heard God’s voice, how can we tell whether they have heard an external power of the universe, or a hidden part of their own minds?
Is there a difference?
- Genesis 11:26-27.
- Genesis 20:12 (unless Abraham is lying).
- Genesis 11:31.
- Genesis 24:50-51.
- Genesis 30:27 and 31:51-53.
- Genesis 31:19.
- In a 5th century C.E. story attributed to Rabbi Chiya, Terach made idols for a living, and Abraham mocks them (Bereishit Rabbah, 38:13). This fable enhanced Abraham’s reputation with a Jewish audience, but the Hebrew Bible itself never mentions idols in connection with Terach.
- Genesis 12:7, 13:14-17, 15:1-7, 15:17-21, 17:1-8.
- Genesis 15:13-16.
- Genesis 17:9-22.
- Genesis 18:20-33.
- Genesis 21:9-13.
- Genesis 22:1-2, 22:11-19.
- Genesis 22:20-23.
- Joshua 24:2.
- Genesis 25:27-28.
- See Genesis 25:29-34, in which Esau can only think about eating, but Jacob cooks stew ahead of time and is prepared to bargain for Esau’s birthright.
- Hagar hears God in Genesis 16:7-13 and 21:17-18. Avimelekh hears God in a dream in Genesis 20:3-7.
- Lavan, Rebecca’s brother, also hears God in a dream (Genesis 31:24).
- Exodus 3:1-4:23.
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